Generally speaking, growing healthy grapes for producing quality wine can require a lot of spraying in the vineyards, and the use of important quantities of pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, etc.
I remember learning while attending University in the early 2000s, that French viticulture alone was using half (50%) of all the chemicals used for the country’s entire agriculture, while vineyards only represent about 10% of the surface area dedicated to farming in France.
Much effort has been done by the industry since for developing more environmentally-friendly practices, sustainable viticulture, using biodynamics, and more.
Many wine producers all over the Europe and the world now produce organic wine, spraying only products that are relatively friendly to nature surrounding vineyards.
One of the most recent development in this field, is the use of new disease-resistant grape varieties, vines selected to resist to fungi AND to produce quality wines. Across Europe in particular, pioneering wine producers are leading the way and testing these new breeds of super-grape vines, and experimenting with producing wine from them.
Let’s have a closer look at the issue at play, and at some of the first results with cropping resistant grape varieties.
Why are there diseases in vines? The Issue
The 2 diseases which require the most treatments in viticulture (spaying vines to protect them) are the downy mildew (Plasmopara viticola) and powdery mildew (Erysiphe necator).
These fungal diseases originated in the Americas and they were not a problem in European viticulture until the 19th century when they were introduced in Europe.
No European wine grape varieties, those that had been selected for millennia for producing the best-possible wines had ever been exposed to such damaging illnesses and none of them was naturally resistant. Since, all grape growers around the world using traditional European wine grape varieties (of the Species Vitis Vinifera, the good ones we know, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, or Pinot Noir) have had to pray their vines chemically, generally between 6 and 16 times per year depending on the region and the local weather conditions.
The European Institute of Statistics (EuroStat) clearly confirms that the use of chemicals in viticulture is much higher than the same use in any other agricultural sector in Europe.
What are resistant grape varieties? The potential solution
An alternative method to spraying chemicals for managing diseases in vineyards, and one already used for many other crops, is to use resistant grape vine varieties.
These were created by crossing European grape varieties and American fungus-resistant species.
Most of these are still known as hybrids and were first used in France from 1880 to 1935. The aim was to combine the good resistance to diseases and phylloxera of the American grape varieties with the high quality of European varietals.
Unfortunately, these new varietals were either not able to survive on their own root or producing poor-quality wines.
Thanks to several successful grapevine improvement programs in Europe, this solution is now a viable option in viticulture.
New varieties have been selected, and the method could reduce the use of grapevine fungicides by nearly 90%.
Furthermore, these new breeds of vines belong to the type Vitis vinifera because they are not to be distinguished taxonomically and the European Union is progressively allowing them by law because they are in not GMOs (they are not genetically modified organisms, but selected crossings between natural existing varieties).
Examples of Wineries Using Resistant Grape Varieties
In Italy, after 15 years of research by the University of Udine and the IGA (Applied Genomic Institute), hundreds of crossing and thousands of examined plants, the first 10 resistant vines were legally registered and authorized (these 10 grapes being Fleurtai, Soreli, Sauvignon Kretos, Sauvignon Nepis, Sauvignon Rytos, Cabernet Eidos, Cabernet Volos, Merlot Khorus, Merlot Kanthus, Julius, read more on udine20.it).
The first 2 regions that have authorized their cultivation are Friuli Venezia Giulia and Veneto, even though it’s not possible yet to produce DOC wines.
The hope of some producers is that in the future Italy will look up to Germany, Czech Republic and the USA, where these varieties are allowed within the DOC regulations.
Corvezzo Winery and Sauvignon Kretos
Veneto-based organic Prosecco and Pinot Grigio producer Giovanni Corvezzo planted in 2016 his “first hectare of Sauvignon Kretos (of course, I’m not growing only Glera for organic Prosecco), one of the famous resistant vines you have certainly heard about.
I planted 1,30 ha of Sauvignon Kretos and this year we will have the first harvest of this very particular kind of grapes.
Not organic prosecco, sauvignon kretos.
Honestly, we don’t know yet if this test will be a success.
If on the one hand we can say that since 2016 we have not done any kind of treatment (not even the copper covering), taking a further step in protecting the environment, on the other, the final quality of the wine remains a big unknown for the moment.
In any case, I feel that we can (and must) try.”
Learn more about this organic Italian producer at Corvezzo winery profile.
In France, Chateau Grinou’s Resistant Grape Varieties
Vitsphere reported in February 2018 that Chateau Frinou, a French winery based in Dordogne, introduced a new “Bon” brand at the Millésime Bio organic wine show from January 29 to 31.
In 2014, Ch. Grinou planted Muscaris and Cal 604 on 1.5 ha which produced their first crop in 2017. With the Muscaris is produced a sparkling wine and with the Cal 604 a dry white. Since the grape varieties are unknown to consumers, the property chose to send out a simple, clear message through the brand’s name and graphic design in the shape of a raised thumb. “Our wines are good to the taste but also good for the environment and the health of winegrowers”, said Gabriel Cuisset who runs family-owned Château Grinou, a 40-hectare property, 30 of which are certified organic.
6,500 bottles of wine made with resistant grapes have been released, 2,000 bottles of Muscaris and 4,500 bottles of Cal 604.
Read more on vitisphere.com