Faced with global warming, which promises New Aquitaine to experience the climate of Seville in a few years, the vine is particularly vulnerable. Changes have already been observed, such as an earlier flowering and harvest period, an increase in alcohol content … Research programs and experiments are multiplying in an attempt to find an appropriate answer.
The award for the most innovative program, and perhaps the most expensive, undoubtedly goes to the start-up Space Cargo Unlimited, which is neither more nor less trying to find the solution … in space. With its Wise mission, the Bordeaux startup has truly sent vines to the International Space Station in an effort to create a new variety that would be more resistant to the phenomenon of global warming or disease.
Plants that grow faster
And the first results of this experiment are “exciting”, says Nicolas Gaume, head of Space Cargo Unlimited. The Wise mission had in November 2019 and then in March 2020 sent 12 bottles of Petrus vintage 2000, then 320 vines – 50% merlot and 50% cabernet sauvignon – to the ISS. The shipments had been recovered in January 2021, after which the 320 vines had been replanted in the greenhouse to compare their growth with 320 other vines left on Earth.
One and a half years later, the 320 plants have grown, enabling a new plant campaign in early 2022, which has given birth to “thousands of plants”. Specifically, “we have been able to observe that our space plants are evolving much faster than those left on earth and that they are putting appropriate responses to external aggressions in place.”
Lack of gravity creates significant stress on plants
Example with mildew, “disease that we do not know how to treat, except with Bordeaux mixture, which is not ideal”, remembers Nicolas Gaume. “We exposed the leaves of our plants to this disease, with the result: 100% of the terrestrial vines died, while the vast majority of space plants survived. We then selected the surviving plants that we replanted to see how they would develop. Important detail: “The properties that plants acquire in space are permanent: it’s like when you create a new black rose by cutting several roses. »
How do you explain this difference? In case of gravity, or rather absence of gravity. The idea of the Wise mission was actually to expose the vines at a precise time in their development, that is, as young people, to this very special spatial environment, as it is deprived of gravity.
“When you remove an element that is as important to life as gravity, it creates significant stress on living organisms, causing nature to find adaptation strategies,” explains Nicolas Gaume. The plant finds natural response mechanisms for survival and attains adaptability in the light of minor but nonetheless catastrophic loads, such as water or temperature stress, or in the light of pathogens such as mildew. »
Create vines “more resistant to disease and climate change”
The launch of Space Cargo Unlimited also indicates that “compared to control plants left on Earth, more advanced genetic analyzes of space wine shoots show changes in more than 90 genes linked to basic metabolism, and to the response defense of space wine shoots on Merlot leaves. Space Cargo Unlimited is now awaiting confirmation of these findings during outdoor replanting.
These initial results therefore confirm the purpose of the Wise mission, which is to create vines that are “more resistant to disease and climate change”, with plants in particular consuming less water. “But we remain cautious, we are only halfway through our experiments and we will have to wait to go to the end of the cycle,” warns Nicolas Gaume.
In fact, a new planting cycle will be needed to reach final conclusions. “For example, we tested mildew on the leaves of the plants, but not on the roots, which we will need this summer to get ahead in the experiment. »
We must now “ensure the taste qualities of the grapes”
It will also be necessary to ensure the taste qualities of the grapes given by these Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon grape varieties, the most widely used in Bordeaux, when the heating poses a threat of having to use other grape varieties. “We are waiting for a sufficient amount of grapes,” continues Nicolas Gaume, and we believe that it will not be enough this year to carry out vinification, therefore we replant next year to ensure the taste qualities and that it is suitable for wine production with all the health guarantees that are our obsession. “
All of these experiments “are highly monitored, in certified laboratories and controlled greenhouses,” insists the head of Space Cargo Unlimited. The start-up has in particular a partnership with ISVV, the Institute of Vine and Wine Sciences based in Villenave-d’Ornon in the suburbs of Bordeaux, “one of the largest research laboratories for wine and wine in the world.”
Another partnership that will be crucial for the continuation of the project is what has been concluded with the Mercier group, “the largest wine gardener that supplies most of the large castles”, Nicolas Gaume emphasizes. For it is thanks to him that “we hope to be able to offer our more resilient vines to wine growers. »