Is Soil Dryness Responsible for Early Grape Ripening in Australia?

Climate change, be it brought on by anthropomorphic sources or the natural cycle of the earth (I’m not trying to start that debate), is continuing to be touted as having a significant influence on agriculture and also viticulture worldwide.  Scientists have been predicting that growing and ripening seasons are likely to change in some places, while some (if not all, eventually) will find that the variety of grapes traditionally grown in their region will no longer survive there and other varieties of grapes will have to be planted in order to keep up with the changing environment and climate.

In Australia, studies have found that many grapes varieties in 11 of 12 grape growing regions have been ripening earlier in time periods between 35 and 115 years.  It was noted that these early ripening years were correlated with increases in temperature.  One study in particular by Webb et al (2012) surmised that the earlier ripening in these regions was quite possibly due to temperature increases, soil drying, and/or changes in vineyard management techniques.

By Amanda Slater (originally posted to Flickr as Barossa Valley. SA) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Amanda Slater (originally posted to Flickr as Barossa Valley. SA) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The author of the study presented today (White 2013) claims that there are several issues with the conclusions that Webb et al (2012) came up with.  First, he claimed that the data Webb et al (2012) used was for areas of land around 2500 hectares, whereas the vineyards they were analyzing were significantly smaller at 0.2 to 16 hectares.  The “behavior” of any given piece of land can be radically different even at relatively close distances.  Assuming the environmental information ascertained from a 2500 hectare plot is similar to a random tiny vineyard of no more than 16 hectares in size could be dangerously inaccurate, resulting in missed data or other important hydrological and geographical information unique to that particular vineyard or area.

White (2013) also noted that the soil data used by Webb et al (2012) was for the entire continent of Australia and not for any one particular vineyard site.  Again, similar to the concept described above, the soil in one particular area may be radically different from the soil in another, thus using the average for an entire continent may lead to inaccurate results.

Next, White (2013) noted that the water data used by Webb et al (2012) did not include data from regions by which some of the study vineyards were located.  This may have resulted in some loss of data and loss of result accuracy.

Finally, the last beef that White (2013) had with the study by Webb et al (2012) was that they only used growing season rainfall totals, whereas White argued that the more appropriate variable would be the annual rainfall total.  Just because the vines are dormant in the winter does not mean that the rainfall occurring at that time has no influence on the growth and development of the vine the following spring and summer.

Focusing on Soil Dryness

One of the claims Webb et al (2012) made is that earlier ripening could be due to increased soil dryness.  As a result of the aforementioned flaws in the study design, White (2013) sought to examine this claim further, to either confirm or refute the hypothesis based on more accurate data.

Soil moisture can be simply defined as the balance “between rainfall and actual evapotranspiration, with a variable small surplus in winter going to drainage” (White, 2013).  In other words, the soil will be moist or dry depending upon how much rain it got, plus the amount of moisture that is lost through evapotranspiration (think moisture lost due to heat to the atmosphere) with a small amount draining into the water table far below the surface.  As air temperatures increase, potential evapotranspiration increases.  In other words, as air temperature increases, more water is lost from the plant to the atmosphere.

By Tomas Castelazo (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Tomas Castelazo (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

It is important to note that as temperatures and carbon dioxide increase, plants have a mechanism to conserve their water by closing their stomatal pours on the leaves.  By closing the stomata, the amount of water that is lost by the plant to the atmosphere decreases and remains within the plant and within the soil around the plant for survival.

So in reality, as White (2013) noted, for most vegetation in areas that are known to have low rainfall or suffer from near drought-like conditions, the decrease in water loss by the plant is directly affected by increased temperatures and increased carbon dioxide, thus counteracting the potential loss of water to the atmosphere had these stomatal closing mechanisms not been in place.  Hydrological research also found that catchment runoff (i.e. runoff from the higher elevations to the lower elevations)  increases with increasing carbon dioxide, thus supporting the idea that as temperatures and carbon dioxide increase, water is not lost into the atmosphere but is in fact retained in the plant and in the soil around the plant.

Due to the results of this research in plant physiology and catchment hydrology as mentioned just previously, White (2013) concluded that annual rainfall may be a good surrogate for soil moisture when the measurements of soil moisture are not readily available.  The overall goal of the study was to determine if trends in annual rainfall confirmed or refuted the theory that soil drying has an effect on earlier ripening in grapes based on the conclusions made by Webb et al (2012).

Briefly, the annual rainfall data and the grape ripening data from 5 different grape growing regions in Australia and over an 11 year moving average were analyzed using a linear mathematical model.

Conclusions

The results of the study found that 3 out of 5 grape growing regions showed positive annual rainfall trends (i.e. increased annual rainfall over time), while 2 out of 5 regions showed negative annual rainfall trends (i.e. decreased annual rainfall over time).  Only one of each was statistically significant.  According to White (2013) the model results are consistent with the data collected from those same regions in Australia during those same time periods.

Since there was a significant increase in annual rainfall during this 11 year period, White (2013) said it was not possible that soil drying would be contributing to the early ripening found at vineyards throughout the region.  In fact, if anything, the soil was getting wetter while the grapes were ripening earlier!

At the site that did see a significant decrease in annual rainfall, there was actually no change in grape ripening found in previous studies.  So, if Webb et al (2012) were correct in their assumption, this site should have seen either no change in annual rainfall plus no change in ripening date, or a decrease in rainfall plus an earlier ripening date.  Since neither of these scenarios played out, White (2013) ascertained that soil dryness was not contributing to earlier ripening in the grapes of Australia.

Based on these results, White (2013) expressed confidence that soil dryness did not influence the date of ripening for grape varieties in Australia.  In fact, it is likely that there are other factors involved that are significantly affecting this date, with the more likely culprits, according to White (2013), being vineyard management practices and increased air temperatures.  According to White (2013), vineyard management practices had changed around this time period, which is something that should be significantly considered as a major player in earlier grape ripening.

Personally, I don’t lay the blame on any one factor in particular.  I think many different factors act in concert to speed up the ripening process of these grapes, and thereby more complex mathematical models taking more of these factors into consideration should be tested.

I’d love to hear what you all think!  Please feel free to leave your comments!

Source: White, R.E. 2013. Has soil drying contributed to earlier grape ripening in wine regions of southern Australia? Australian Journal of Grape and Wine Research 19 (1): 123-127.

1 comment for “Is Soil Dryness Responsible for Early Grape Ripening in Australia?

  1. Paul Verdegaal
    January 29, 2013 at 1:03 pm

    Good discussion. Probably more complex than just soil mositure or temperature or management. All three are important; and more. Terry Prichard et al. (UCCE) found in several studies of regualted deficit irrigation (RDI) between 1989 and 2009 that moderate deficits do advance ripening, but extreme water stress can slow it down in some years (stomatal ressonse to drought). A warm year will advance ripening, but a light crop also advances berry deveolpment. Managemant practices such as pruning severity, canopy and crop load management, cover crops, nutrient management, trellis design, etc. all have an effect. And maybe as important; propagation material over the years has been more likely to be clean of leaf roll viruses, which delay and inhibit ripening.
    Keep in mind also that grape vines don’t read the literature and often do what is unexpected and not yet understood.

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