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Climate Change Prompts Renewed Interest In Native Missouri Grapes

If you are a fan of wine, particularly European wines, from France, Italy or Germany, you can be proud of the role Missouri plays in creating that wine.

Ever since the mid-1800s roots from Missouri grapes have been grafted on to European varieties, because of their natural resistance to certain pests.Missouri grapes garner renewed interest under climate change

“Missouri has a very large, and very rich, very diverse wild grape vine population and these grape vines have already been used for the past 150 years,” says Laszlow Kovacs, a biologist with Missouri State University in Springfield.

Back in the 1800s Missouri grape vines were sent to France because of their resistance to a pest called the phylloxera louse.  These days there is renewed interest in native species because of their adaptations to factors such as drought.

A recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science predicts that over the next 50 years climate change could phase out as much as 70 percent of the world’s current vineyards.

As you can imagine, that would have huge implications for wine, as well as a whole slew of other agricultural products. 

“Life wants to conquer any possible living space, and for example [here in Missouri] we have a grape species called the rock grape, appropriately named because it grows on gravel bars around rivers that are very dry, sunbaked areas where no other plants can survive,” says Kovacs.

But does this mean that soon we’ll all be drinking wine made from the plucky rock grape?

“No, I’ve never had the wine and nobody probably would, because you would characterize the fruit as un-drinkable,” notes Kovacs.

But even if that’s the case, it isn’t the fruit of the rock grape vine that researchers are interested in.

Allison Miller is a Biologist working with St. Louis University’s Center for Sustainability. And the vines she’s showing me aren’t from France, or Australia, they’re from right here in Missouri.

“We have our research vineyard divided into two sets of vines,” says Miller. 

On the table in front of us are several dozen tiny vines, representing two native species of Missouri grapes. 

“These two species are adapted to different environments in nature.  So, each group of our grape vines will receive a drought treatment and a control and what we’re interested in is differences in gene expression,” says Miller.

Miller says the data from she hopes to gather from these native species can be used to help identify so-called “genetic markers” potentially making it possible to then breed those traits into other grape species.  And she says it makes sense to conduct the study in a place like St. Louis.

“Many urban areas are thought to act as what are called “urban heat islands,” says Miller. “Which means that they retain, and are hotter, relative to surrounding areas.  The thought is that that urban heat islands may mimic some of the situations predicted under future climates.”

In a few weeks these vines will be planted outside at the Missouri Botanical Garden, where workers are busy installing trellises.  Miller is partnering with MoBOT to test the vines at temperatures and conditions throughout the summer. 

But even if some of our current vineyards do disappear, it doesn’t necessarily mean the death of the wine industry.

“You know, I would say that climate change is slower than trends in wine drinking,” says Cory Bomgaars, the head of winemaking operations at Les Bourgeois Vineyards outside of Columbia, Mo. 

He says winemakers are used to phasing out certain species and growing grapes in new locations.

“You know a traditional Napa cab might not be the same as it was 20 years ago,” he says.

Whether or not you feel that fact is cause for celebration is a matter of taste, but native species will likely be a key factor in determining what kind of wine we drink, and where we get it.

Follow Adam Allington on Twitter:  @aallington

Adam Allington / St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis Public Radio
Adam Allington / St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis Public Radio

Copyright 2013 St. Louis Public Radio

Adam grew up on a cherry farm in northern Michigan. He holds a BA in economics from Kalamazoo College. Adam's radio career began in 2003 at the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Portland, Maine. He went on to cut his teeth filing stories for Maine Public Radio. Before coming to St. Louis Public Radio in 2006, Adam was was an international journalism fellow at Deutsche Welle in Bonn, Germany. He has regularly filed features for various shows and networks including NPR, PRI, Marketplace and the BBC. He received a Knight-Wallace Journalism Fellowship for the 2011-2012 academic year.