June 6, 2013 at 8:13 PM ET
Experts say "terroir" — the geography, geology and climate of grapes' native soils — defines the difference between good vintage and bad. But the plants' sensitivity to their environment also means that climate change presents a massive threat to the industry and that delicate balance. However, new genetic research may stave off those worries, even as the planet warms.
Working with Corvina grapes, a team of Italian geneticists identified genes that help protect the fruit from the vagaries of the weather and could serve as a platform "for breeding new cultivars with improved adaptation to the environment," the team reports Friday in the journal Genome Biology.
The team grew the grapes in 11 vineyards across the Verona region and harvested berries at various stages of ripening for three years to analyze which genes were expressed under what conditions — finding genes, for example, associated with a wine's taste, color and mouth-feel.
"We need to know more about this kind of thing across a wider range of varieties and climates," Gregory Jones, who studies the intersection of climate and grape growing at Southern Oregon University in Ashland, told NBC News. He said the Italian research, which he did not participate in, is "good stuff."
Humans have been adapting grapes to different environments throughout the history of making and drinking wine. Understanding what genes to select for just makes the process more efficient and faster. "We may be able to understand and adapt to climates much better," he said.
Historically, most adaptation of grapes has been to colder climates — pushing the cool limits of viticulture. Climate change has sparked interest in the other end of the spectrum, especially in places such as California where wine is a $15 billion a year industry.
As the climate warms there, the concern is that too much heat will impair the ability of the grapes to produce the sugars needed for fermentation. As a result, grape growers and wine makers may be forced to pull up roots and head to cooler climates in Oregon, Washington and Canada.
The new genetic research, however, highlights the possibility to breed traits that expand the temperature range for a grape's optimal growth. "You are potentially looking at staving off a certain amount of climate change," Jones said.
But how new climate-resistant strains of each grape varietal will affect the wine itself is another issue.
"In an ideal world, of course, you would never breed out beneficial or quality characteristics while you're trying to breed in" environmental defenses, Jones said. "So there is clearly a balance that has to be done there."
John Roach is a contributing writer to NBC News. To learn more about him, visit his website.