Climate Change-Induced Water Stress: How Leaf Position Affects Water Use Efficiency in the Grape Vine

According to scientists, climate change will affect various parts of the world differently than one another. Specifically, in regards to the Mediterranean region (as well as many others), a decrease in annual precipitation is currently predicted, based on past data and future forecast models. As a result of this predicted change, there has been substantial interest in research related to water use efficiency in both viticulture and agriculture in general, as precipitation changes will likely bring changes to the sustainability and quality of crops, so determining how to adapt to these changes is absolutely necessary for the future of viticulture and agriculture as a whole.

This type of research is not exactly new, and has been going on for many years. Current strategies for combating decreased water availability due to climate change include (but are not limited to) controlled irrigation and partial root zone drying. The problem with using irrigation in a climate that has significantly

By Photo by Lynn Betts, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. (USDA NRCS Photo Gallery: NRCSCA00061.tif) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Photo by Lynn Betts, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. (USDA NRCS Photo Gallery: NRCSCA00061.tif) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

reduced precipitation is the issue of where the water used for irrigation would come from. To work around this issue, scientists are currently looking at plant water use efficiency, and how pruning or other viticulture strategies can optimize plant water use in such a way that the need for supplemental irrigation is reduced. Of course, there are some “issues” with looking only at water use efficiency, as higher water use efficiency has been linked to lower fruit yield in grapevines. Therefore, optimization, and not necessarily maximization of water use efficiency is key.

The goal of the study presented today was to examine variations in leaf water use efficiency in the grapevine (Tempranillo, to be specific) under water-stressed conditions as well as under different light conditions, as well as throughout different parts of the canopy.


This study took place at a commercial vineyard in Mallorca, Spain during 1997, 1998, and 2000. 20 year old Vitis vinifera grapevines of the Tempranillo variety were utilized for the study. The study consisted of two plots (located adjacent to one another) containing 350 plants each and underwent one of the two following treatments: 1) Irrigation: irrigation was applied via a drip system twice per week, and was set to drip enough to account for 30% of evapotranspiration; 2) No irrigation: soil progressively became more and more water stressed throughout the treatment period.

Climate conditions were determined by a local weather experimental station nearby. Pre-dawn and mid-day leaf water potential, as well as leaf gas exchange was measured in June, July, and early August. There were a total of 6 replicates per treatment.

Net photosynthesis, stomatal conductance, and transpiration were all measured 6 times a day for every 3 hours between the hours of 6am and 8pm.

All measurements were done on leafs located in 8 different locations within the plant canopy. For each measurement day, 6 replicates per leaf location were measured.

Daily-integrated intrinsic water use efficiency and instantaneous water use efficiency were both calculated.

After harvest, leaves from each canopy location were harvested from six plants per treatment. Fresh weight, leaf area, specific leaf weight, and total leaf area of each canopy location were measured or calculated.


• Irrigation resulted in stable plant water status throughout the growing season.
• Pre-dawn water potential decreased throughout the growing season for those plants in the non-irrigation treatment.
• The ratio of photosynthesis to stomatal conductance was significantly higher in water-stressed plants compared with irrigated plants.
• Photosynthetic active radiation (PAR) interception varied depending upon where in the canopy the leaf was located, with a decrease in PAR noted from the upper part of the canopy to the lower part of the canopy.
o Those leaves in the innermost part of the canopy showed the lowest PAR values, which makes sense due to the fact that the leaves are in the shade do not experience as much radiation from the sun as leaves in full sunlight.
• Water stress did not affect PAR values for any leaf position.
• Midday leaf temperature and leaf-to-air vapor pressure deficit did not differ between any of the leaf positions.
• Water stress resulted in an increase in midday leaf temperatures.
• Water use efficiency was extremely variable between the different leaf positions in the canopy.
o The lowest water use efficiency was in shaded leaves, whereas the highest water use efficiency was in the leaves at the top of the canopy.
o Leaves in sunnier positions had 3x greater water use efficiency than leaves in the shade.
• Water use efficiency was increased in water-stressed plants.
o Those leaves near the top (but not all the way on the top) of the canopy (i.e. those leaves with 67.5% light interception compared with the top leaves) were found to have the highest water used efficiency.
• There was a significant relationship between water use efficiency and the daily intercepted PAR of the leaf.
• South-facing leaves at the top of the canopy had the highest water consumption levels per leaf area than all other leaves.
• Shaded leaves showed the lowest rates of transpiration, however, since there were so many of them (making up 37% of the total number of leaves on the plant), the water use efficiency actually decreased compared to leaves at the top of the canopy.
• Total water consumption decreased in water-stressed plants.
o Moderately-stressed plants showed a 47% decrease in water consumption compared to irrigated plants.
o Severely-stressed plants showed a 70% decrease in water consumption compared to irrigated plants.


The results of this study indicate that there were significant differences between the locations of the leaves in the canopy in regards to water use efficiency. The authors speculated that these differences could be due to the differences found in PAR and light exposure. In regards to the entire plant, it was found that water use efficiency increased when the plants were under water stress. This makes sense, as when the plant has less water to work with it needs to make sure it’s spending the appropriate amount of resources on water consumption while at the same time reducing the resources needed for evapotranspiration. In other words, it is in the plants’ best interest to become more efficient at using water when water is scarce, so it doesn’t prematurely shrivel and die due to poorly managed resources (though at some point, this will happen anyway if no water is ever seen again).

The results also indicated that the shadiest of areas on the plant had cumulatively the lowest water use efficiency (or highest daily water loss)

By Agne27 at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

By Agne27 at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

compared to all other locations. The authors suggested that by using selective thinning or pruning in this area could decrease the total water loss and increase the water use efficiency of the grape vine. Of course, one must be careful when undertaking a new pruning management plan, as water use efficiency will not be the only thing changed after the pruning occurs.

It is important to note that pruning has influence on many other factors, including the maturation of the grape and the overall quality of the fruit, so it is important to find some sort of middle ground if selective pruning is of interest to you. Selective pruning may be a good approach to adjusting to climate change-induced water stress, however, it is important to take all factors into consideration before just tearing apart your entire vineyard canopy. It is advised to experiment with a small number of vine first prior to partaking in a vineyard-wide pruning management regime.

One other side note to mention is that this study examined just one grape variety (Tempranillo). It’s possible other grape varieties may behave slightly differently in regards to their water use efficiency and their ability to adapt to changes in water availability, so certainly further studies using more grape varieties is warranted.

What do you all think of these results? What other vineyard management programs do you think could be applied after seeing the results of this study? Those of you with experience in vineyards under high water stress, or those that may be experiencing change in water availability at your vineyard: what sorts of vineyard management practices are you doing to adapt to the conditions? Please feel free to comment!

Source: Medrano, H., Pou, A., Tomás, M., Martorell, S., Gulias, J., Flexas, J., and Escalona, J.M. 2012. Average daily light interception determines leaf water use efficiency among different canopy locations in grapevine. Agricultural Water Management 114: 4-10.