Mireia Pujol-Busquets spent her childhood surrounded by grapes. Her father, Josep Maria, founded the family’s winery, Alta Alella, in 1991. The current 50-hectare farm, in Barcelona’s Serralada de Marina Natural Park, focused on certified organic farming techniques, creating organic wines ranging from orange and pet-nat to traditional cava. Her mother, Cristina, was the owner of Cristina Guillén Selecció de Vins, a wine shop, also in Barcelona. She, however, took a different route and after a lifetime surrounded by all things wine, went to Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona (UAB) to study biology.
After graduating, Pujol-Busquets worked for the United Nations in Thailand, focusing on environmental and agricultural issues. It was through that experience that she realized she was happiest not in an office but actively doing field work and getting her hands dirty. Her travels next took her to Switzerland in 2010, where she studied hybrid plants at an organic research center. There, she realized she had to enact real change as the wine industry was facing disease, climate change and new forms of parasites.
“[The Swiss research center had a] small winery and, in this small winery, they work with hybrids, different kinds,” she says. “I had the opportunity to see how, thanks to these varieties, they can work organically—and [work] well,” she says.
She returned to Spain and enrolled in a Masters program in organic agriculture, followed by a Master’s in viticulture, while working at her family’s winery on the weekends. Pujol-Busquets began thinking about the wine world long-term; of the generations prior to herself and the generations after that will continue winemaking. And that’s when she realized she would have to change the world, starting with her own two hands.
“I needed to find grapes that could live in the [new, warmer] conditions. So, we got in contact with researchers that have experience in hybrids and two more wineries and then we started this project,” she says.
The project to which she’s referring, Resistant and Autochthonous Varieties Adapted to Climate Change, was launched 12 years ago and is ongoing, developing varieties that are resistant to plagues such as powdery mildew and downy mildew and have more drought tolerance. She was specifically looking to create plants that would be increasingly adapted to climate change without having to treat the soil or the vines. To do this, Pujol-Busquets and her team of about 10 people (who also multitask in the vineyards, she says) planted more than 5,000 seeds in greenhouses in Thailand, where the high humidity would mimic extreme conditions. The hybrids in this study incorporated a variety of grapes, including Xarel-lo, Macabeu and Parellada. From there, it was, quite literally, survival of the fittest.
“We did about 300,000 different crossings of these varieties. The ones that were the most resistant ones we planted on the field,” she says. ”It was the resistance to disease and temperature changes that were valued.” Pujol-Busquets then started making small batches of wine from these hybrids to see how they behaved in terms of acidity and alcohol. Then, there was a final test to see if the plants organoleptically talk—meaning, they would have the same taste, color, odor and feel of the plants from which they were derived.
“They have to look really, really alike or very similar to the mother plant. We had to find the sons and the daughters of these plants; they are stronger, but they have the characteristics of the parent plant,” she says. While the study has obtained 400 plants during this process, Pujol-Busquets notes that the goal is to end up with the 12 strongest that most resemble the origin plant.
Now, the next challenge is legalizing these grapes and having them be accepted as a new biodiversity, she says. However, this is an uphill battle. Pujol-Busquets notes that part of the issue is local tradition in Spain, namely the Catalonia region, and keeping the same vines.
Pujol-Busquets sees this type of study as replicating what would have naturally occurred were humans not on the planet—if vines had been left alone to grow, change and adapt on their own. Pujol-Busquets explains that as organic agriculture and trying to find ways to create the best product with minimal—if any—intervention is crucial to both the maintenance and growth of the wine industry.
If anything, she is hoping this study will inspire others—PhD students, viticulturists, winemakers and even local administrations—to look at sustainable farming in the wine industry with new, fresh eyes and take the subsequent generations into account when making today’s decisions. “We have to evolve,” she insists. “We have to do what we can do and we have to try new things, new techniques.”
While Pujol-Busquets works to do her part to make a difference, especially in Spain, there are other growers and researchers around the world who are also fighting the good fight across the wine industry. In Sonoma, CA, Chalk Hill has worked with a clonal study of Chardonnay since 1996, finally registering Clone 97 in 2003. The brand worked alongside University of California, Davis to make these inroads. In Tuscany, Italy, Banfi is also making an attempt to fight climate change through viticulture, says general manager Enrico Viglierchio. “We have been able to tailor our approach to viticultural activity based on how specific varieties are impacted by the changing patterns in temperature and water,” he says in an email, noting that the team is working with the University of Milan on experimental rootstock that is able to perform under significant hydric stress conditions.
Pujol-Busquets explains that it would have been easier to pull plants from other parts of the world to Spain. There are plants that winemakers already know are more resistant and stronger than clones. However, in Catalonia, there is a heritage to uphold that is important to the wine world. And, that heritage is something that Pujol-Busquets wanted to ensure would not be lost for future generations. “There is tradition. There is culture. And it took a long time to build that culture, a long time to build that foundation. So, let’s try to be smart and not lose it.”