Home > Tasting Notes and Wine Reviews > “Vines under glass” : Global warming vineyard research in Japan

“Vines under glass” : Global warming vineyard research in Japan

The rapid advancement of science and technology in the 19th extended into viticulture and vinification.  By the mid-19th century, horticultural and pomological societies developed a focus on the grapevine with an eye towards wine production.[1]  Within the United States, these private societies were the precursors to efforts funded at the state and federal level.  Agricultural research centers and universities were created that, in part, studied all aspects of viticulture: climate, soils, how grapevines grew in different locations, the best training methods, pests, and diseases.  This research even took place on government funded experimental vineyards.  Parallel to this effort, advancements in chemistry enabled those curious about wine to define its very constitution.  And of course that very crucial step between the vine and wine, winemaking, was treated to a full range of technological advances and side branches.

By the mid to late 19th century multiple forces came to bear on viticulture and vinification.  The development of a railway network, steamships, and agricultural banking systems coupled with the spread of phylloxera meant that the international wine market was in a state of flux.  French winemakers fled from France as Algerian and Spanish wineries tried to supplant the former demand for French wine.

Grapevines in a 19th century greenhouse. Gardening Illustrated, Volume 18.

Grapevines in a 19th century greenhouse. Gardening Illustrated, Volume 18.

However, it wasn’t just wine that was being shipped about, grapevines were being transported too.  Winemakers and investors realized that to get ahead during this devastating period, they had to best the French with similar wines that drank just as well but earlier.  The wines of Bordeaux were king which meant that Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc, amongst other varieties, popped up in both likely and unlikely places.  Thus we see vines purchased from first growth estates cultivated in Spain and California.  Hot climate winemaking became all the rage so out went vines to Algeria, India, and even Palestine.

The vineyards of France did recover to provide a fabulous series of 20th century vintages.  However, these 19th century seeds of experimentation and adventure have quietly returned.  I first heard of these efforts nearly 20 years ago went I visited my graduate school roommate in Japan.  He was spending a year at the University of Tokyo learning technical Japanese.  His particular work involved translating Japanese research papers focused on grapevine and soil interaction.  These studies took place in large greenhouses where each individual vine was in a large pot each with its only regulated water supply.  This is was not much different than any vine nursery.  However, with this setup researchers could study every combination of vine and soil.

Irrigation system for grapes.  From McEvoy Ranch. Flickr.

Irrigation system for grapes. From McEvoy Ranch. Flickr.

Large scale studies of grapevine pests and diseases have seen the development of compartmented greenhouses.  To prevent anything from escaping, these greenhouses have controlled ventilation, temperature, humidity, and water supply for the grapevines.  These greenhouses have also been used for controlled studies on the impact of global warming on grapevines.  By raising temperatures and adjusting humidity and water supply a variety of scenarios may be tested in advance.  Large-scale LED arrays were even introduced to simulate more sun filled days.

Research at the University of Tokyo at Shibuya is now being conducted with the Bordeaux Research Institute.  In what is an inevitable combination of viticulture science, greenhouse technology, and knowledge of global warming the vineyards of Saint-Emilion are being simulated in Japan.  As a UNESCO World Heritage site, where some of the most remarkable wines are made in the world, there has been a steady increase in ripeness and alcohol level.  In short, the wines of Saint-Emilion are no longer what they used to be and there is an effort to produce the famed wines of the past.

The vineyards of Saint-Emilion are composed of clay, silt, and sand over a hard layer of bedrock.  What is remarkable is that the shallow limestone soils only extend some 50cm before the impermeable bedrock layer.  This compact geologic structure means the soils can be recreated elsewhere.  Thus in large greenhouses in Japan individual vineyards have been recreated.  The base layer is a man-made composite that simulates the bedrock.  Above that is the half-meter layer of soil which was prepared by cultivating virgin soil with samples from St.-Emilion.  The greenhouse itself is climate controlled with an advanced watering system to simulate rain and LED lighting arrays.   The vineyards were cultivated with massal selections from the very vineyards they are recreating.

Commercial greenhouse with lighting.  Mizzou Magazine.

Commercial greenhouse with lighting. Mizzou Magazine.

Several years ago several universities and estates (think Premier Cru Classe A) started a new a project based on the existing greenhouse infrastructure.  This project simulates the daily climatic conditions in an effort to reproduce the famed vintages of the past.  This, of course, also required the construction of period winemaking equipment and barrel aging cellars.  This is all possible because advancements in 19th century science saw the development of climate studies and weather recording.  By coupling daily weather observations, vineyard and winery journals, and historic climate models, the daily life of these vineyards was mapped out for more than 100 years in to the past.

Of course vines grow and react to their environment so some sort of starting point was required.  Fortunately the devastation from phylloxera meant the wide scale replacing of vineyards in the late 19th century.  This period then marks the start “year” of the project.  With each progressive vintage the weather simulation and wine production is expected to close in on what really happened in the past.  For redundancy and development of best practices there are three simulated vineyards for each real vineyard.  The hope is that all three will converge but issues from nematode growth, insects, to yeast prove to be a bit more difficult to control.  Still, there is time ahead.  The first significant milestone is the “1899” vintage that will be harvested in 2030.

Growing grapevines under glass is a practice that was performed for centuries in cold climate England.  Today it is used to counter the destruction  of historic vineyards due to global warming.  In ours and subsequent lifetimes we will see the return of monumental vintages such as 1900, 1928, 1945, 1961, and 1982.  The question is, at what point will the researchers stop repeating history?  Will they be able to implement a new controlled cycle where we have a new “1961” every five years or will they simply “correct” the future version of past vintages?

[1] April Fool’s!

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