19 June 2015

 Professor Vladimir Jiranek and PhD candidate Lieke van der Hulst

Image: Professor Vladimir Jiranek and PhD candidate Lieke van der Hulst at the launch of the ARC Training Centre for Innovative Wine Production.
Image courtesy: The University of Adelaide.

 

The wine industry is big business in Australia and our exports are strong. Australia is around the 6th highest wine exporting country in the world.

What we often don’t think about when sipping our favourite drop is the science behind the wine making process.

From crushing, to fermentation, to bottling and ageing—each process is guided by science.

A new Australian Research Council (ARC) Industrial Transformation Training Centre is now looking to further boost our booming wine industry.

In 2013 The University of Adelaide was awarded $2.4 million in Australian Government funding, for the ARC Training Centre for Innovative Wine Production.

The research at this training centre is focused on the entire wine production chain, that is, from grape to glass.

Researchers will provide new knowledge, methods and technologies to tackle challenges currently faced by the wine industry, including water restrictions and environmental change, along with the changing consumer preferences and rising alcohol content in wine.

The Training Centre is led by Vladimir Jiranek, a Professor in Oenology within the School of Agriculture, Food and Wine at The University of Adelaide.

The Training Centre also has 14 postgraduate students and four postdoctoral researchers (12 and 3 funded through the ARC) who are receiving invaluable experience working at the training centre in close collaboration with their partners at the forefront of the wine industry.  

Professor Jiranek said the first 12 months of operation have been critical for the team to establish its research programme.

“What we’ve had an opportunity to do over this first 12 months is to get all the students in place and for them to establish their experimental designs for the vintage that has just passed.

“We’ve tried to integrate those projects as much as possible, so the students working on viticulture projects end up providing the grapes that other students then use for their wine making activities.

“We’re trying to use the same material right throughout the process to achieve integrated outcomes, which is what we need to do to manage alcohol and flavour,” he said.

Researchers at the centre are closely partnered with other leading research centres, along with food and wine companies worldwide.

They are collaborating with 12 partners who are providing $1.2 million in cash and in-kind support. Partners include, Charles Sturt University, CSIRO, the Australian Wine Research Institute (AWRI), NSW Department of Primary Industries, South Australia Research and Development Institute (SARDI), Bio Innovation South Australia, Treasury Wine Estates Vintners, Laffort Oenologie Australia, Lowe Wines, Memstar, Tarac Technologies and Sainsbury's Supermarkets. The Training Centre has also attracted additional support from the Australian Grape and Wine Authority.

Professor Jiranek said the integrated industry support, knowledge and advice was invaluable in ensuring the delivery of beneficial outcomes.

“They (industry partners) provide expert advice, access to vineyards and wineries, as well as grapes and wines.

“They are there as a sounding board and give us feedback on the projects as they develop and as they are planned.

“They’ll also be involved post-vintage as we evaluate the wines we’ve produced to let us know if we’re headed in right direction.”

This industry involvement and advice is the key to the future success of the training centre in reaching its end goal.

“In terms of the actual research it’s really about being able to dial up any flavour and alcohol combination we want, which is extremely ambitious, it’s like aiming for the moon, but that’s what we’re aiming for and if we get 25% of the way, we’ll be thrilled.

“From a commercial point of view, we need to manage alcohol content of wines by about 2% minimum, that is, if a wine ordinarily came out at 16% content, but through practices and treatments it in fact achieves 14%, that would be a good outcome.

“Consumers will be happier, the flavour and alcohol would be in better balance, but more importantly the wine will be more profitable for the producers as it won’t be subject to the same sort of export taxes as the more alcoholic wine.”

Professor Jiranek readily acknowledges the importance of the ARC’s Industrial Transformation Research Programme in allowing his team’s transformational research to occur.

“ARC funding has been absolutely critical not just from the dollars point of view allowing us to do the work, but the structure of the programme is very important.

“It allows us to take on over a dozen students and post-docs, which then allows us to simultaneously undertake the multifaceted research projects we have. 

“We’re trying to optimise the whole production chain, from the vineyard through to consumers, and I’m not aware of any other scheme that allows us to do that in the way that this particular scheme does.”

The ARC Training Centre for Innovative Wine Production is well-placed at the Waite Campus of The University of Adelaide to achieve high-quality results.

South Australia produces more than half of Australia’s grape crush and has the highest wine production rate of all the states1. It also has some of the best wine research facilities in the nation.

“One of the unique features of this campus, particularly in terms of wine research, is that we are co-located with  groups such as AWRI, CSIRO and SARDI, who each have quite distinct wine research activities, so that collective allows us to actually share expertise and facilities,” Professor Jiranek said.

“I believe we are actually the largest concentration of wine research anywhere in the world, so it’s a very unique place to do wine-related research.”

This concentration of wine research capability is attracting young researchers to the university and in particular to the training centre.

PhD student, Ms Lieke van der Hulst, is looking into the biochemical response of grapevines to smoke exposure.

Ms van der Hulst is originally from the Netherlands and completed her Masters in her native land. Her expertise is in biochemistry and biotechnology, however she has a strong interest and working history in the wine industry, and wants to play a strong role in supporting the industry.

“We’re looking at grapes that have been exposed to smoke…these grapes initially take up smoke compounds and link them to sugars in the grapes; we’re looking at how this linkage actually occurs and how many sugars are linked to it,” she said.

“These sugars break down during wine-making due to additional ingredients like yeast, and then release the smoky aroma—you can’t really taste the taint in the grapes, but it does affect the taste of the wine.”

And smoke taint is not a pleasurable taste; Ms van der Hulst likens it to smoked fish and salami in a fruity shiraz.

Her research is important, particularly given the $300 million estimated cost of smoke taint to the wine sector following the 2007 bushfires in north-eastern Victoria.

“Many winemakers bought grapes (after bushfires), thought they seemed fine, used them for their wine, but then found a horrible flavour,” Ms van der Hulst said.

Ms van der Hulst hopes to find a way to either release all the smoke particles from the sugars prior to bottling, in order to remove these free compounds, or ensure the smoke particles do not break down at all.

“The end goal is to help winemakers produce high-quality wine even though a crop may have been affected by smoke, and also for grape-growers to stay in business even though they can’t always fight what nature brings.”

For more information about this research programme please visit the ARC Training Centre for Innovative Wine Production website.