Vines to be frozen to protect France’s valuable wine source

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Above all else, preserve the wine.

The world’s largest collection of historical grapevines will be frozen in a €10.4 million (about $12.1 million) cooler, launched this month by the French National Institute for Research into Agriculture, Food and the Environment (INRAE), The Times UK reported Monday.

The conservation center was built to protect and support grape varieties most cherished for winemaking, many of which have been threatened by climate change.

The collection of “long lost” grape varieties could be revived should contemporary, conventional grapes be permanently altered or made extinct by rising temperatures in decades to come.

Experts and vintners have previously sounded the alarm on the slow disappearance of other widely sought grapes, such as pinot noir.

Plant tissues provided by France’s Domaine de Vassal, a 27-hectare facility with grapevines collected since the 1870s, will be stored in a cryobank of liquid nitrogen dialed to 196 degrees Celsius below freezing (-321 degrees Fahrenheit). Their catalog in the south of France includes over 2,700 vine types from 54 countries — all of which were cultivated in sandy soil, indicating they might be well-suited to a less fertile environment.

A few hundred types are reportedly still being used, while the remaining in the collection are considered obsolete.

INRAE researcher Philippe Chatelet told Times UK, “Some of the ancient varieties may give a lower yield but they might be more flexible and more resistant to insects and pathogens.”

wine grapes
Over time, widely used grape varieties become weakened by a lack of biodiversity, risking rapid extinction in the face of global warming.
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Chatelet said that a lack of biodiversity in today’s ramped-up wine market has put more popular, and thus overused, grapevine species at risk.

“People tend to adopt the grapes that are used in regions that produce high-quality wines” — such as chardonnay or pinot noir — “thinking that if they want to export their wines to places like the US, they would be better off using the same varieties.”

“The result has been a standardization of grape varieties,” Chatelet explained.

Along with documented vintage vines, the decades-long research by historians at Domaine de Vassal uncovered, in 1992, a never-before recorded type called the Magdeleine Noire des Charentes, from Brittany — though the peninsula in France’s northwest hasn’t produced wine since the 19th century.

The real challenge, said Chatelet, will be figuring out how to safely regenerate the preserved vine tissue.

The project comes as recent studies have warned, including one published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences last year, that rising temperatures could wipe out 85% of the world’s wine regions.

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