Steve Savage
9 min readNov 25, 2020

The European Union’s Wine Grape Quandry

Artistic rendering of wine grapes — Photo Steve Savage

The European Union has recently published a lengthy “Farm to Fork Strategy” which sets out ambitious goals for its agricultural sector. One part of the agenda is to reduce the use of pesticides either by restricting the way they can be used or in many cases by not authorizing their continued use when those particular chemicals come up for periodic review by regulators. Often these restrictions are at odds with the rigorous safety assessments that have been made by many regulatory bodies around the world including the US EPA. Another part of the agenda is to encourage the expansion of Organic farming. There are several reasons why this plan will cause serious complications for European farmers, and since the EU is a major importer of food, feed and fiber crops, the restrictions that it applies to various grape pesticides will also be a problem for farmers around the world who export their crops to the EU market.

Many crops will be affected by this agenda, but one interesting case-study is what this push will mean for the prominent and highly regarded wine grape industry in the EU. Wine grapes only represent around 3% of EU farmland, but around 20% of total EU pesticide use. There are several reasons for this relatively intensive use of crop protection products. For one thing wine grapes are a very high value crop so growers can afford to use more products to optimize the yield and quality of their fruit. But there are also important historical and genetic reasons why certain pests represent a particular challenge for the European grape industry.

With most crops, breeding is an important strategy to help with pest problems, notably when that involves tapping into the genetic diversity available in various wild relatives of the cultivated crop. With wine grapes the breeding option has essentially been “off-the-table” because of the long tradition which has identified very specific Old World grape varieties of the species Vitis vinifera which have been found to provide the highest quality for the weather and soil conditions of each growing region or “appellation.” The long-term history and tradition of growing specific grape cultivars in each region is often called “terroir” and this is not anything the industry wants to change because it needs to meet consumer expectations and marketing narratives about wine quality.

Interestingly in the 1870s there was a dramatic change to the genetics of European grapes. A root feeding insect called Phylloxera was inadvertently transported to Europe from North America. The various wild species of grapes that evolved alongside that pest are fairly resistant to the damage from Phylloxera. (The most familiar example of this kind of grape is a species called Vitis labrusca which consumers know as Concord Grapes because that is the kind of grape used to make non-alcoholic grape juices such as the famous brand — Welches). The native American grapes are not considered to be that good for making high quality wines, but some hybrids between the two species are grown for wine in the Northern US in areas that are too cold for Vitis vinifera. The Vitis vinifera grapes of Europe evolved without the challenge from Phylloxera so once the pest crossed the Atlantic the vineyards were highly susceptible to its damage and began a steep decline. The only way the industry was able to be saved was by grafting the vinifera cultivars onto “American Rootstocks.” Grafting is a horticultural technique that has been practiced for centuries, but it was only with great reluctance that the European growers took that step.

A grafted grapevine, image from Washington State University Extension

Around the world today virtually all wine grapes are grown on these “American” rootstocks because they can provide protection from soil-borne pests while allowing the traditional varieties to achieve the desired fruit qualities that made them so desirable. Almost all perennial crops are grown on rootstocks and so are some high value vegetables like fresh market tomatoes.

There are also two serious foliar diseases that also made the jump from North America to Europe in the 1800s. The first was a disease called Powdery Mildew and it causes loss of yield and quality as it grows on the exterior of the leaves and fruit. Vitis vinifera is highly susceptible to this pathogen.

Grape Powdery Mildew infection of a developing grape cluster, Photo by Laura Jones/Univ. CA Davis

The solution that was found is probably the oldest known pesticide, elemental Sulfur. This “natural” mineral product that may have evern been used in ancient Egypt was found to control the new disease in Europe, but only if the grapes were “dusted” with something like 10 pounds/acre of sulfur every 7 to 10 days for much of the season until the fruit begins to ripen (a stage called veraison in grape-speak). Sulfur is not very toxic to eat or drink, but it is an eye and skin irritant that can make it quite unpleasant to work in a vineyard. There is also some evidence that as with other dusts, sulfur can increase the risk of asthma among the children who live near the places were dust products are applied. California has recently restricted the use of sulfur and other dusts near populated areas. “Wettable” forms of sulfur can still be used without the respiratory problem and that is still a part of integrated pest management systems for grapes. However; most modern grape growers use sulfur more sparingly because newer and more effective “synthetic fungicides” have been developed which require far smaller doses at longer intervals and which are in the EPA toxicity class IV described as “essentially non-toxic” by ingestion. I remember a time in 1978 during my second season being out in California vineyards for my graduate research that I was amazed to smell a beautiful floral aroma during the grape bloom period — something I had not experienced the season before. It was because I was in a block treated with the first example of these new fungicide options instead of the normal odiferous and irritating sulfur. I have a podcast about that event. Grape growers who choose to grow for the organic market are not allowed to use these more modern tools and must therefore depend on high use-rate options like sulfur and something called “petroleum distillates” (think mineral oil for the later). Thus, this is just one example of how the EU Field to Fork strategy embodies conflicting goals if it wants to reduce pesticide use and the push for more organic production.

Grape Downy Mildew sporulating on the bottom of a leaf. Photo by Mark Longstroth, Michigan State Univ. Extension

Grape Downy Mildew sporulating on the bottom of a leaf. Photo by Mark Longstroth, Michigan State Univ. ExtensionThere was another “intruder” fungus pest that originated on North American grapes and then caused even more severe problems for the European industry in the 1870s. It is called downy mildew. The solution that was ultimately found to this disaster was another very early pesticide. It was discovered by a French botanist named Pierre Millarday who noticed a particular vineyard along a roadside that stood out by exhibiting much less damage from the new disease. He learned that the grower had applied copper sulfate combined with lime as a way to make the fruit look unappealing so that people passing by would stop helping themselves to his grapes (you can see an image of this blue coating in this article in Wine Spectator).

That “natural” pesticide became known as the Bordeaux mix and it saved the grape industry. It was also a much-needed solution for a related disease on potatoes that had cause the famous Irish Potato Famine in the same era. Various copper-based products do work against these pests and many are approved for use in organic production, but unfortunately they are quite toxic to aquatic organisms and are persistent in the environment since the mineral copper is copper and it isn’t going to break down to innocuous components the way that many other natural or synthetic chemicals do over time. After years of use, copper fungicides build up in vineyard soils and can become toxic to grape roots. Many European organic growers have had to abandon their organic status because of these soil issues. Copper fungicides also require high use-rates (4–6 pounds/acre) and frequent applications because the copper is easily washed off by rain.

Once again, many low toxicity, highly effective and environmentally safe synthetic fungicides that have been developed to fight downy mildew, but those options are not allowed for use by Organic growers. European regulators are not fans of these copper fungicides, but their politicians have made exemptions for their own grape growers while at the same time setting up barriers to more benign products that have met rigorous standards in other countries.

Organic growers also have limited options for the control of mold fungi that can infect the grapes as they become ripe. That sort of “bunch rot” is very bad for wine quality, but another fungal disease that can be successfully controlled with safe, modern synthetic fungicides while organic growers still depend on things like copper. Chemical herbicides are also desirable for grape production so that there isn’t a need for erosion-causing mechanical plowing to take care of weeds in the vine rows. Plowing is still the main option available to Organic producers. So, in all these cases the EU’s pesticide and organic goals are in conflict with one another for all crops, but particularly when it comes to the iconic wine industry

As mentioned earlier, there are several wild grape species that are more resistant to powdery and downy mildew. Theoretically traditional breeding methods could be used to transfer some of those genes. Conventional breeding of grapes is possible but slow, and it has been used to develop things like seedless table grapes with new colors and flavors. Some new wine grape varieties with disease resistance from wild grapes have been developed by breeders working for the University of California, and they were repeatedly “back-crossed” so that the final result was a variety with 95% vinifera genes. But because of tradition and some remaining wine quality questions, almost all the wine grapes of that state and other grape growing regions around the world are still the traditional European varieties.

With modern genetic technologies it is now possible to work with only one or a few genes from the wild grape species that confer pest resistance and do so without any effect on the thousands of other genes in the storied cultivars. This sort of precision is now much more feasible because of the genome editing technologies that are generating excitement for many applications in both medicine and agriculture. But the EU as a whole has been very resistant to accepting “GMOs” methods even though their own scientists have long argued that such changes do not represent any greater risk to public health or the environment than do traditional means of breeding. Scientists at Rutgers University and with the USDA are working now on using this approach to get downy mildew resistance into Chardonnay.

There is some hope in the scientific community that European activists and political authorities will take the logical step of saying that they can consider these modern genome editing technologies differently from how they responded to first generation genetic engineering methods. There is at least a promising mention of such technologies in the EU’s Farm to Fork Strategy and some sources are saying that EU regulators and even groups like GreenPeace might contemplate a more rational approach to these technologies.

“In response to the request of Member States, the Commission is carrying out a study which will look at the potential of new genomic techniques to improve sustainability along the food supply chain.”

Ideally the EU might take reasonable approach of combing state of the art genetics with the sort of low hazard synthetic chemical options that would still be important in order to avoid selecting for fungal resistance to traits a grower would need to last for decades in a new vineyard planting. That would also relieve the wine industries in other countries from having to cater to EU trade barriers in the choices they make about how to produce their crops.

Steve Savage

Semi-retired agricultural scientist, writer, consultant, blogger, speaker. San Diego county, California