The Art of Research

By John Darling

Climatologists and viticulturists would love to broaden their understanding of long-term cycles by finding temperature records from centuries ago, but there were no thermometers back then - and no way to capture this kind of data.

For Greg Jones, a world-renowned vineyard climatologist and professor at Southern Oregon University in Ashland, he's realized he doesn't always need accurate written data to do his research; instead art might work.

After locating a group of botanical paintings in Hungary, Jones knew he could uncover some climate data. It was not the visual aspect alone that convinced Jones, but the consistency of the artwork over a period of time: the same vineyard plants were painted on the same day every spring, dating back to 1744. By digitizing and calibrating the size of the vineyard buds displayed in each painting, perhaps he could create a new climate analysis of the Old World.

He traveled to Hungary with an Italian colleague, Diego Tomasi of Veneto, and scanned the paintings from books stored in the village of Keszeg. The books could be handled only with protective white gloves, and the paintings could not be removed. Jones said that it was even dicey to flatten the books and scan the pages, but, in the end, it preserved the images for the ages and makes them available to the world.

During his research, Jones found the shoots varied with each vintage - some appearing only as stubs and others many inches long, and all drawn to the same scale over the centuries. Calibration of the different lengths pointed to some interesting details, such as extremes in temperature: the coldest period was in 1817, and the warmest occurred around 1780 and 1830. Jones said, the increased sunspots showed more solar energy and correlated with the warmer springs.

Jones, whose parents founded Abacela Winery in Roseburg, confirms the extent to which vines are sensitive to climate and offers a snapshot of temperatures going back 266 years. But he is careful not to make any pronouncements about present climate change.

"It represents March and April temperatures," Jones said, "but doesn't say anything about them in September and October; and there's no connection between spring temperature and vintage quality, which is more about summer growth and fall ripening."

This new research will be offered as an article to professional journals and is some of the earliest documented data in early European temperature cycles.

Jones and Tomasi were recently in Koszeg for the Festival of St. George, April 24, in which town folk walk from the village center to each vineyard, combining cultural, artistic and scientific interests, along with plenty of wine drinking. 

John Darling is an Ashland writer.

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