The New Science of Vino Ecology

Posted Apr. 14th, 2016 by Melynda Harrison

The New Science of Vino Ecology

As vineyards are expanding around the world, and taking more biologically diverse land, a new science of vino ecology, or vinecology, has been born.

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Vineyard at the Kanokop winery in South Africa with a sign showing the types of grapes they produce. Lumix GX1 with 14-42mm. ISO 800

Many of us love to sip merlot and pinot grigio, sauvignon blanc and malbec, and the wine market is booming. But, the love of fermented grapes has led to habitat loss. Taking water from streams makes problems for fish and aquatic ecosystems. The move away from natural cork leads to forest destruction.

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Vineyard at the Kanokop winery in South Africa.  Lumix GX1 with 14-42mm. ISO 800

Emerging conservation scientists and vintners are looking for a way to find a balance between growing wine grapes and conserving the landscape.

Wine grapes on the vine, Autumn, Romania

Wine grapes on the vine, Autumn, Romania. Lumix GH4, Leica Nocticron 42.5mm

Conservation magazine recently ran a story about this new science of vinecology.

“The frontier for conservation science is figuring out how to preserve biodiversity in human-dominated landscapes, especially agricultural landscapes—and vineyards appear to be a promising place to learn how to do that,” says Joshua Viers, a biologist at the University of California, Davis, who helps lead an innovative vinecology research program that is linking conservation scientists with winemakers. “If we can learn to do conservation in vineyards, then maybe we can learn to do it in brussels sprouts.”

Wine grapes on the vine, Autumn, Romania

Wine grapes on the vine, Autumn, Romania. Lumix GH4, Leica Summilux 15mm F/1.7

Wine grapes are grown mostly in regions with Mediterranean climates, think California, Chile, South Africa, Austrailia, and of course, the Mediterranean.

Wine growing regions are also important biological habitats.

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Winery vineyards along the coast in the Cinque Terre region of Italy. Lumix GH4 with Leica Nocticron 42.5mm F/1.2

The Mediterranean is “well known for nurturing a dazzling array of specialized species, from long-lived, fire-tolerant shrubs to delicate salamanders and elegant grassland birds that have finicky tastes in nesting sites. Many were

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Bottles of French wine sit on the shelf in an underground cellar near Barcelona, Spain. Lumix GX1, 14-42mm ISO 800

already laboring under the usual environmental threats posed by human activities; now, they had to contend with ranks of merlots and malbecs,” David Malakoff wrote in Conservation.

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Underground caverns, holding Codorniu sparkling wines known as Cava near Catalonia, Spain Lumix GF2 14-42mm ISO160

The Conservation article outlines several veins of research in ways to balance wine with native species.

  • An ecofriendly winemaker in Virginia is growing a native North American grape cultivar. The Norton grape is more resistant to disease and pests that attack Eurasian grapes. This means less pesticide on the grapes and in the soil. Bringing the local grape back into the marketplace also increases genetic diversity among grapes that tend to be genetically very similar.
  • Letting vineyards grow a little wild can be good for native species. “In Switzerland, for instance, vineyards that allowed some grass to grow between the vines (not the usual practice) had more woodlarks (Lullula arborea) than those using herbicides to keep the soil bare. (6) And in New Zealand, native butterflies tended to do better in vineyards having more patches of native plants, Mark Gillespie and Steve Wratten of Lincoln University reported last year in the Journal of Insect Conservation.”

But protected wildlife can also include insects, which can be bad for grapes. Researchers say when you zoom out and look at the bigger picture, wine growers that work with nearby vineyards can create a landscape that both conserves

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A glass of red wine, Italy Lumix GH4, Nocticron 42.5mm F/1.2 ISO 400

native species and grows healthy harvests.

  • The amount of water needed to grow grapes is another problem, especially in places like California that are already facing severe drought pressures. It turns out that while grapes do need water, 20-30 gallons a day, they are nowhere near as thirsty as other crops such as cotton or corn. And by ending a practice of spraying plants when temperatures drop (ice protects the buds), vintners can save even more water.
  • Swapping real cork for plastic and screw tops has endangered an ancient cork-making industry. It seems like the move away from cork would help forests of cork trees, it actually injures them. The process of growing and removing cork for trees protects the trees and their forests.

“Cork forests do more than help keep wine fresh and provide jobs for nearly 100,000 people,” Malakoff wrote. “They are also among the last remaining hotspots for an array of birds, including the Spanish imperial eagle (Aquila adalberti) and the black stork (Ciconia nigra). But ‘without the high income resulting from the production of cork

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Dinner table of wine and french bread. Italy Lumix GH4, 12-35mm F/2.8 ISO 500

stoppers, montados may lose their economic viability’ and be cleared for other uses, Ana Leal of the University of Lisbon warns.”

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Wines in presentation packing from the Kanonkop winery in South Africa. Lumix GX1 14-42mm ISO 800

What can an eco-groovy wine drinker do to help balance wine and conservation? Look for eco-labeled wines and buy them. If your local wine store doesn’t carry them, ask them to get some in stock.

See more of Melynda Harrison’s great reporting on conservation issues, the environment and her travels at

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