Chocolate & Wine: A Common Fate?

Over the past decade the chocolate market has undergone an astonishingly fast process of “premiumization,” in some ways comparable to the segmentation of the wine market. Viticulture concepts, such as “goût de terroir,” “grand cru” and “single estate,” are increasingly bandied around to describe fine-flavor cacao beans and denominate origin. Some bar makers have gone so far as to recommend pairing their products with specific foods or spirits.

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Wooden fermentation bins, Hacienda Rio Dulce, Izabal, Guatemala

The boutique chocolate maker, To’ak, made waves with the launch of  bars retailing for over $300 a pop made from aged Ecuadorian beans replete with vintage year. Another noteworthy trend in the gourmet chocolate world is an intensified emphasis on origin. Onyx Coffee Lab recently launched its Terroir Coffee Chocolate, which combines coffee and cacao grown in the same region:

For the initial run of Terroir, Onyx has selected three distinct origins, two that will be familiar to the coffee world and one that is better known for its cacao. Their Guatemalan chocolate combines a 69% cacao grown amongst lemons, coffee, and honeybees with wash-processed Caturra and Bourbon varieties from the famed Finca La Esperanza in Huehuetenango.

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Insulation fabric to modulate temperature during fermentation, Hacienda Rio Dulce

These concepts may well be justified given cacao’s chemical complexity. Like wine, chocolate has a dazzlingly high number of chemical compounds that determine aroma and flavor (cocoa contains more than 600 flavor compounds; red wine has some 200). Compared with other industrial crops, cacao trees represent a vast genetic variability among cultivars by region. Trees’ genes interplay with the conditions in which they are grown to produce flavor: elevation, shading, rainfall, soil type, micronutrients and even endemic mycorrhizae, the fungi that colonize a plant’s roots. Proper fermentation and drying of the cacao and their subsequent transformation into chocolate tease out the bean’s full potential.

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Cacao beans being prepared for fermentation, Hacienda Rio Dulce

As growers, an equally intriguing comparison can be made between the cultivation of wine grapes and cacao. A recent article published in the New York Times profiled the Jackson Family Wines company in California and the winemaker’s adoption of techniques to anticipate and mitigate the effects of climate change. Like cacao and coffee, climate change is posing an existential threat to many traditional vineyard areas with one study suggesting that global output could plummet by mid-century:

It found that the area suitable for wine production will shrink by as much as 73% by 2050 in certain parts of the globe, with high potential for stress on rivers and other freshwater ecosystems as vineyards use water to cool grapes or irrigate to compensate for rising temperatures and declining rainfall.

Wine growers are challenged by increasingly unpredictable temperature swings and more frequent dry spells. This has prompted growers to expand into new, generally cooler regions, such as Oregon. These are trends we are also contending with at Izabal Agro-Forest. Across Central America, a combination of factors has already led to the conversion of farms from coffee to cacao driven principally by climate change. Drier, warmer weather is pushing cacao cultivation up the mountain into higher elevations along Central America’s cordillera.

In Nicaragua, the ideal coffee zone is between 700 and 1,700 meters (2,297-5,577 feet) above sea level, but rising temperatures and lower rainfall will shift the range to 1,000 to 1,700 meters (3,281-5,577 feet) by 2050, according to a 2012 study by the International Center for Tropical Agriculture. Temperatures have increased between 0.5 and 3 degrees Celsius (0.9-5.4 degrees Fahrenheit) in the region in the past century, and temperatures in coffee zones are expected to rise another 2.1 degrees Celsius (3.8 Fahrenheit) by 2050.

Simultaneously, the spread of roya — a type of fungal rust that affects coffee trees — is accelerating under the warmer conditions. In sum, we have much to learn from our wine-growing counterparts in Napa and Sonoma Valley largely because the threats are common.

Jackson Family Wines has adopted high-tech measures, such as sensor-activated wind machines. While these may not be cost-effective for most cacao growers, Izabal Agro-Forest uses principles of agro-forestry, most importantly, the interplanting of overstory trees. Interplanting not only provides shade, but also serves as shock absorption against heavy rains and wind while helping to retain humidity during dry periods. Izabal Agro-Forest utilizes native hardwoods with high resilience and commercial value, including, among others, big-leaf mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla). By producing a source of sustainable plantation mahogany, we hope eventually to relieve pressure on the species in its natural habitat, which is nearing commercial depletion.

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Interplanted native hardwoods and cacao at Hacienda Rio Dulce

Jackson Family Wines employs birds of prey by providing dozens of owl boxes and even bringing in falconers. Although controlling the population or behavioral patterns of fruit-eating birds may, at first glance, appear anti-ecological, farmers are contending with imbalances triggered by the human-induced decline of raptors and other predators. The explosion of prey populations that also happen to feed on crops can have deleterious effects on food production and even the geological landscape.

I recently became familiar with the concept of “trophic cascade,” which refers to a process in which a predator suppresses the population and/or distribution of prey. The reintroduction of wolves into the Yellowstone National Park has been perhaps the most salient recent example. Researchers discovered that the flourishing wolf population altered the behavior of deer, which had become emboldened in their grazing. More than killing large numbers, the wolves drove the deer away from low-lying river areas. The retreat of the deer led to the regeneration of vegetation, which in turn reduced erosion. The return of trees and natural grasses altered the course of streams, creating habitat for beavers and other wildlife whose populations began to rebound. Perhaps Izabal Agro-Forest can draw lessons from the experience of Jackson Family Wines as its cacao stands have faced losses due to an abundance of woodpeckers. The reintroduction of raptors could be an elegant solution, although any such measures would need to occur in close collaboration with ecologists.

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Cacao cultivars, Hacienda Rio Dulce

Like many winemakers, Izabal Agro-Forest has turned to red wigglers for help. With assistance from Byo-Earth and other partners, we constructed a worm compost facility whose vermicompost has helped improve nutrient content and bio-availability to levels superior to those of inorganic fertilizers. Just as important as its nutritional content, vermicompost is a soil conditioner that improves water retention, a crucial benefit given that cacao cultivation worldwide is almost entirely rainfed and subject to increasingly dry weather conditions.

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Local students visit recently-inaugurated vermiculture bins, Hacienda Rio Dulce

Our company has deployed the ancient technique of biochar which utilizes biomass converted to activated charcoal through pyrolysis. Biochar is effective at improving the fertility of acidic soils. (The majority of tropical soils tend to be acidic due to weathering and leaching, particularly after forests are cleared). There is increasing evidence that biochar promotes carbon sequestration.

Although wine grapes and cacao come from vastly different regions, they face similar threats. Growers of both are well-advised to swap notes on management techniques that enhance crop resilience and check the burgeoning threats posed by a changing climate. For die-hard chocoholics and wine connoisseurs alike, the question itself may be existential: Is a planet without wine and chocolate a planet worth living on?

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Steve Bergin of Conservation Cacao contemplating the biochemistry of fermentation, Hacienda Rio Dulce

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2 thoughts on “Chocolate & Wine: A Common Fate?

  1. Thanks for the mention. Definitely an important but incompletely understood facet in ecology and maintaining healthy soils. I linked within the entry.

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