By: Becky Garrison
According to Steven Thompson, winemaker for Analemma Wines (Moiser, OR), they chose to plant new varietals in their certified biodynamic winery because they are a good match in terms of micro-climates, as well as a strategic marketplace differentiation. “This spectrum of varietals ripen at different times to allow us to take advantage of shifting seasonal variations,” Thompson opined. This move also enabled them to have a range of products on the market to meet shifting consumer demands.
As evidenced at a joint Viticulture and Enology Session held as part of the Oregon Wine Symposium (February 11-12, 2020), Thompson joins a growing cadre of wine growers and winemakers, who are exploring producing alternative varieties that can appeal to wine consumers.
Wine Varietals and Climate Change
Dr. Gregory V. Jones, Evenstad Director of Wine Education, who holds the Evenstad Chair in Wine Studies, and a professor and research climatologist at Linfield University, opened the conversation with a discussion about the dramatic effects of global climate change on the wine industry in terms of landscapes, marketplace, and wine growing. Citing data coming out of Berkeley Earth laboratory, which Dr. Jones noted is similar to data from other climate laboratories, since 1980, the trend in global temperatures has risen nearly three to four degrees Fahrenheit. All signs signs indicate the temperature will continue rise along with accelerated trends towards warmer summers and winters, as well as less rain with the exception of spring in many regions.
When examining the global response from the wine industry, Dr. Jones stated that growers from different wine regions are discussing how to adapt to this future warming climate. “You can see investment in reducing energy and water needs, along with changes in viticultural practices and varieties of grapes grown.”
Due to climate change, the limits of viticulture have change dramatically in the past 20 to 40 years. For example, the 58 degree latitude mark that designated the furthest north one could establish a viable vineyard has grown up north to 61 degrees latitude. Also, this overall warming has created changes in ripening characteristics with grapes now coming to fruition in less time.
In his assessment, the way to increase adaptability is to decrease vulnerability. “We need to realize the large potential that we have for adaptation, Dr. Jones reflects. Here he points to some recent research from Cornell involving DNA sequencing kind of framework where they can breed varieties plants in the order of months and weeks instead of years. He adds there’s also a need to develop increasing regenerative agriculture processes that maintain healthy soils and optimize energy and water systems.
As expected, climate change has produced a global shift in the types of grapes being grown. For example, Jones pointed out that Bordeaux added new varieties to its list, and France just adopted a whole collection of new hybrids that are specifically designed for warmer climates. He added that many regions are going to be interested in places where indigenous varieties have been grown in warmer climates like Greece and Cyprus. Also, Israel is doing research on the cultivar performance of grapes by replicating the types of climates that we might see in the future.
Selecting Alternative Varietals
Brian Gruber, winegrower and winemaker in Southern Oregon’s Rogue Valley with Swallow Hill Vineyard, Barrel 42 Custom Winecraft, and Quady North Winery, spoke at this symposium about how his specialty is variety. Presently, 28 varietals make up more than 80 percent of their harvest. “We have so many microclimates, terroir, soil types, elevations, and other aspects. There’s no one thing that grows best in southern Oregon. It’s very much matching a site to the best varieties,” Gruber stated.
When Gruber began exploring growing different varietals, he looked too see what other winemakers in the region were growing. “I had a neighboring winemaker who was growing nine varietals. And that gave me a chance to see what was growing in my neighborhood.”
Next he assessed those varietals he planted via trial and error with test plots. In addressing one’s particular site Gruber suggested taking the following factors into account: climate (growing days, length of frost free season), elevation, soil test results, wind direction, sun exposure, and water availability. Also Gruber pointed to the necessity of assessing how much to plant of a new varietal. Plant too little and that could hamper the growth of a successful program. Conversely, plant too much and there’s the risk of having more grapes than one can sell.
In addition, Gruber encouraged wine marketers to examine what varietals appeal to them by asking these questions: What gets you interested? What keeps your work fresh and fun? What are other wine markets doing, and how much does it matter being “first” or “new” matter to you?
Based on the overall assessment of those varietals that match a particular site’s profile, a winemaker’s interests, and the current market, create a final list of varietals that fall in the sweet spot. Gruber remarked, “I’m looking for that combination of what I like, what grows where I live, and what the market wants.”
Farming Metrics & Logistics
Like Gruber, Scott Zapotocky, Vice President of Winegrowing for Geodesy Wine’s Eola Springs and Chehalem Mountain Vineyards in Oregon’s Willamette Valley and Sage Ridge Vineyard in Napa Valley, grows a range of alternative varieties with 17 different varieties of grapes planted across these three distinct vineyards. He offered a series of practical pointers in preparing blocks for conversion to new varieties from existing plant material. In conducting a block assessment, he assesses the vigor potential through soil testing and virus risk through plant testing to detect diseases and viruses like Leaf Roll, Fan Leaf, Red blotch, and trunk disease, as well as determining if a trellis retrofit or redesign is needed. He then ascertains if he can mitigate any issues that arise or if a complete replant would be faster and more economical.
In detailing the conversion timeline, Zapotocky pointed to winter as the period to conduct a thorough assessment of vineyard blocks and securing source materials before bud swell. Bud wood sourcing can be from local sources like other farmers (do your due diligence) or in partnership with a nursery that may sell certified material. Be mindful that as viruses can come in one form or another, conduct virus testing to assess the potential risk your business/farm plan can tolerate if a virus is found.
Planning considerations that Zapotocky noted: April through June is grafting season. Here, he cited the importance of vetting the grafter within the local winegrowing community. Weed management: one farming task that is often overlooked throughout the conversion process is weed management. Be certain to take care of any weeds before the grafter begins their work. Budwood stock: a metric of two to three times the amount of buds for the number of plants described. Success rate: it is common for 10 percent or more of the buds to not take, and be prepared to either re-graft in-house, call the budder to come back, or replant as needed.
Do not expect any production during the grafting year though. Zapotocky estimates a block should yield 50 to 70 percent in the first year post grafting and then 90 to 100 percent by the second year. During the field prep for the grafting, be sure to track the prevalence of trunk disease in order to understand the future lifespan of the block. Also, an examination of the growth from individual clones of different varieties can determine which specific clone (or varietals) proved to be the most successful for future planting or grafting projects.
Marketing Alternate Varietals
For those winemakers looking to expand into alternate varietals, Dr. Damien Wilson, Sonoma State University’s inaugural Hamel Family Chair in Wine Business Education, stressed the need to focus on the consumer. As research has demonstrated, global consumption of wine dropped from the 1980s with fewer millennials being attracted to wine.
While wine marketing may highlight specific AVAs, according to Dr. Wilson, less than ten percent of American wine consumers could name the specific AVA that produces their favorite wine. “Consumers start by thinking of wine as a beverage, then an alcoholic beverage, then style, then varieties of grape, and then region,” he stated. The other two criteria that most effectively lead to wine sales are awareness in the consumer’s mind and the availability of a particular wine at the point of sale.
Furthermore, Dr. Wilson noted how during periods of economic upheaval, consumers tend to switch back to blue chip wines. “This switch impacts those wines that don’t have the recognition of say an Oregon Pinot Noir,” he said. Hence, when marketing say Oregon Pinot, lead with what consumers know which is the premium attached to Willamette Valley Pinot Noir.
Keep alternative varieties in mind when crafting marketing campaigns but make them less of a focus initially. Continue to conduct research on the those varieties grown and their popularity with a customer base. Use these benchmarks to evaluate marketing strategies, which should be monitored and adapted over time as applicable.