A Wine Research Gap?

If there’s one thing that I have learned about wine markets it is that they are dynamic. Although there is much about wine that is classic and timeless, there is a lot of change, too, and winemakers and growers need to take account. Global wine markets are changing, the social function of wine is changing and the natural environment of winegrowing is changing, too.

How do you cope with a rapidly changing market environment? Innovation is one answer and that requires research. Is the U.S. wine industry doing enough to keep up with foreign wine producers in basic wine research? That’s the cover story in the December issue of Wines & Vines magazine and their answer is No.

Wines &Vines is a wine industry trade journal; whereas Wine Spectator and Wine Advocate are aimed at consumers, collectors and enthusiasts, W&V‘s audience are industry insiders. It’s a very good publication — I rely on it for information about emerging trends in the industry. If you are seriously interested in wine you ought to take a look at it.

The cover story argues that there is relatively little public research on wine industry problems in the United States. “Public” research is research that is available to all winemakers and growers and is different from proprietary research that individual winemakers undertake for their own use. Australia, with a wine industry about half the size of the U.S., spends about $23 million for public research, with funds raised from levies on winemakers and growers matched by government funds. By comparison, W&V reports about $2 million for public wine research in the U.S. (although total research levels are much higher when private R&D expenditures are included). The argument is that increased funding for applied research would strengthen the U.S. industry in an increasingly competitive global market.

What would increased research funding buy? I think I got a taste of what research can do in an electronic newsletter I received recently from the Australian Wine and Brandy Commission. The AWBC (a.k.a. Wine Australia) is the Australian government agency that was created in 1981 to support the wine industry. One of their current research projects involves the problem of rising alcohol levels in wine.

Everyone knows that alcohol levels have been going up for some years. Climate change is part of the problem — warmer climate and longer growing seasons increases sugar levels and therefore alcohol levels. This is beneficial to wine quality up to a point, but beyond that point there are real problems both with wine balance and with consumer attitudes towards alcohol. How do you bring alcohol levels down without bringing quality levels down, too? Premature harvesting means less sugar and alcohol, but less character. De-alcoholization (usually through a reverse osmosis process — did I get that right David?) is common in California and elsewhere but there are quality trade-offs here as well.

The AWBC reports that their alcohol reduction research is focusing on the yeasts — trying to find yeast strains that will make wine with lower alcohol levels without sacrificing balance and character. They even mention the three little letters that I think everyone in the wine business is afraid of — GMO. No genetically modified yeast varieties have been used in Australia (and are unlikely to be used there ever, thay say), but research into yeasts and even GMO yeasts is an example of the sort of public research that could have wide-ranging benefits for the wine industry. The Australians are out in front on this sort of research, Wines & Vines suggests and it may be so. I know that I rely almost exclusively upon AWBC economic research on global wine market patterns.

The November issue of W&V has an article on dry farming of vineyards that reminds me that innovation and research can take many forms. Once upon a time most quality vineyards were dry farmed (farmed without artificial irrigation), but as irrigation technology improved the focus turned to scientific irrigation practices. I guess the idea is that because technology allows a winegrower to carefully control water availability then this must be the right thing to do. The people who make Mollydooker, the big-boned Australian wines with the huge Parker numbers, attribute their success to the trade-marked Marquis Vineyard Watering Programme, for example.

But John Williams, whose Frog’s Leap wines are also recognized for quality, has taken a different approach, going back to dry farming. He manages the vineyard soil (see photo above) so that it retains moisture effectively and encourages the sort of deep vine growth that gives character to the finished product. The W&V article explains …

Williams pointed out that a vine grown on drip irrigation is essentially a potted plant sitting in the middle of a field, with moisture and nutrients delivered through the drip system. He believes that is a problem. “What kind of flavor do you get from a hydroponic-grown tomato? Very little. Same thing with a grapevine. When the winemaker comes out to taste the berry at 22° or 23° Brix, the flavor isn’t there. So the decision is made to leave it on the vine a little longer, more hang time until it reaches physiological ripeness at 26° or 27° or even 28° Brix. You still aren’t getting a lot of flavor, so you have to start manipulating the wine–micro-oxygenation and lots of oak–to try and get it to taste mature. And you end up with high-alcohol wines.”

He added, “If we talk about when wine went from its historic place as a mealtime beverage that deeply reflects the soil and climate from whence it comes to killer, jammy monsters that advertise that they will ‘melt your panties,’ I think you will come to the same conclusion that we did 18 years ago: that the real wines are made by deeply connecting them to their soils and that dry farming is fundamental to that.”

John Williams’ statements suggests that dry farming, where it is practical, might solve the alcohol problem and yield other benefits at the same time. This suggests to me that, while research tends to focus on winemaking as a science (hence the search for high tech solutions), we need to remember that wine is made in the vineyard and the craft of winegrowing can yield answers, too.

Innovation — doing new things — is one answer to rapid change, but doing the old things more effectively sometimes works even better. Kinda makes you rethink the question of a wine research gap.

One response

  1. I hope everyone reads this post Mr. Veseth, especially that quote by John Williams, because what he is saying is 100% accurate and factual. Sadly, there isn’t a major US corporation to fund a study on this since, there is no money to be made from promoting dry farmed wine grapes. That is just the sad reality.

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