Over the past twenty years, a global deterioration has been observed in vineyards. Vine yields and longevity are declining and there is an increase in vine mortality in plots (a production shortfall of 3.4 million hectolitres was estimated across vineyards in France in 2014). It is estimated that dieback due to wood diseases causes the loss of 5% of vineyard surface every year1. For a long time, the only cause put forward was vine wood diseases, among which esca is the most prominent. This disease, for which existing treatments do not provide satisfactory control, is caused by parasitic fungi that penetrate the wood of the vine. These pathogens cause necrosis and characteristic symptoms on the leaves (discoloration and necrotic stripes). To explain the mechanisms of this disease, in recent years scientists have put forward the hypothesis of multiple causes linked to pathogens, climate change, farming practices, etc. To better understand the reasons and the complex mechanism leading to this decline, INRAE scientists have studied the interaction of two major factors in vine dieback: esca and drought.
A new experimental approach to study vine esca under drought conditions
The mechanisms underlying esca are poorly understood because it is a difficult disease to study under controlled conditions. Because it only affects vines over seven years old, it can only be observed on plots outdoors. In order to create controlled drought conditions, scientists first developed a method of transplanting vines into pots based on methods used to grow bonsai trees. They transplanted 51 30-year-old Sauvignon blanc vines from the INRAE Grande Ferrade experimental estate near Bordeaux. These vines had already been monitored for esca for six years. Over a two-year period, they monitored the appearance of esca symptoms in a controlled environment for the first time, analysing with precision the physiological state of the plants, half of which were under drought conditions.
Drought inhibits esca symptoms
One of the hypotheses put forward to explain the increase in vine dieback in recent years was a synergy between environmental factors such as the increased frequency and intensity of droughts and diseases such as esca. This study shows the opposite. No vines under moderate to severe drought conditions showed symptoms of esca on the leaves. Drought inhibited the disease during both of the two seasons studied, demonstrating the central role of vine water status in esca development. The scientists have suggested several explanations for this unexpected result. A water deficit caused by drought could directly inhibit the activity of parasitic fungi; or drought could also affect the plant's defence responses. Another hypothesis is that the strong reduction in water transport in the plant caused by drought would also suppress the transport of toxic molecules produced by the fungi. While the applied drought had a positive effect in suppressing esca symptoms, it is essential to remember that water availability is a major factor in crop productivity and yield loss.
This study is an important stepping stone in understanding esca and the influence of climate on this vine disease. Research will continue with the aim of better understanding the role of climate (rainfall, temperature, etc.) on esca expression on a national scale. In the long term, this research could make it possible to better predict the appearance of esca symptoms by monitoring drought indices and the physiological state of vines in vineyards.
Study carried out in the framework of the PHYSIOPATH project (2017 – 2021)
Led by INRAE, the PHYSIOPATH project aimed to identify the mechanisms underlying vine dieback using an integrated approach, combining biotic interactions and host plant physiology. By removing technological barriers at the junction between pathology and ecophysiology, this project has provided new knowledge on vine dieback. This project should eventually lead to the identification of thresholds for biotic and abiotic constraints leading to vine dieback.
The PHYSIOPATH project was financed by FranceAgrimer and the Comité National des Interprofessions des Vins à appellation d'origine et à indication géographique (CNIV) within the framework of the Action Plan Against Declining Vineyards (PNDV). For more information (in French): https://www.plan-deperissement-vigne.fr/recherches/programmes-de-recherche/physiopath
Bortolami G., Gambetta G.A., Cassan C., Dayer S., Farolfi E., Ferrer N., Gibon, Y., Jolivet J., Lecomte P., Delmas C.E.L., Grapevines under drought do not express esca leaf symptoms,
 Christophe Riou et al. Action plan against declining vineyards: An innovative approach BIO Web of Conferences, Volume 7, 2016 39th World Congress of Vine and Wine https://doi.org/10.1051/bioconf/20160701040