Genomics sciences guarantees better results in the art of winemaking

September 9, 2009

While the art of fine winemaking is a beautiful thing, winemakers are increasingly turning to the power of science to give them the tools they need to ensure a high quality pour each and every time.

Thanks to innovative new research funded by Genome Canada and Genome British Columbia, help is on the way.

The research will harness the power of genomics to unlock fundamental within grapevine and yeast cells, ultimately helping growers and winemakers to improve wine production techniques and enjoy valuable cost savings in an industry that has seen $4.2 billion in sales in Canada alone.

Dr. Steven Lund of UBC is one of the lead investigators on the $3.4 million project, entitled "Grape and Wine Genomics."

His work will focus on using genomics to identify that will assist viticulturists to monitor how the vine and berries respond to natural and human-made environmental changes.

"Essentially, we are trying to put more advanced tools into the hands of producers," says Lund, who equates current knowledge of the berry to a bit of a black box.

Currently, growers monitor what is happening in the berry like measuring pH and sugar levels to estimate harvest date, but not until late in the growth process. But there are currently no means to monitor the impact that management techniques such as fertilization, irrigation, and leaf thinning have on berry ripening and flavour development earlier in each season.

"All of these techniques affect flavour and amino acid composition, but growers have no idea how or why," says Lund. "That's where genomics comes in."

The ultimate goal? "A practical application - a handheld device, which will help growers monitor proteins in the vine or berry at any time during any given season to determine when specific management practices should be applied and, perhaps most importantly, to what degree," says Lund.

As such, Lund is collaborating with Dr. Paul Yager, Professor of at the University of Washington, whose team has created a portable device for detecting blood-borne pathogens. Yager will work with Lund to adapt his technology for use in the vineyard, directly on the vines.

But while high quality grapes are essential for a good glass, they are but one piece of the puzzle. The rest of the magic occurs during the winemaking process itself.

Dr. Hennie van Vuuren, the project's other lead investigator, is the Director of the UBC Wine Research Centre. His team, which includes scientists from the Max Planck Institute in Germany and Harvard University in the US, is studying the function of the Fermentation Stress Response genes in wine yeasts, which are added to the grape juice during the winemaking process and are essential for converting sugars into alcohol and flavour compounds.

Van Vuuren and his team are using advanced technologies to see how yeast cells adapt to the many stress conditions they encounter, such as osmotic pressure, nutrient limitation, and increasing ethanol.

"We have recently discovered that yeast cells adapt to wine making stress conditions by switching on 62 genes of unknown function," says van Vuuren. "Our objective is to discover function for each of these 62 genes, and in so doing, help winemakers to control their outcomes a little better."

Cost savings is another important issue. Winemakers waste a lot of money due to spoilage caused by yeasts that are essentially faulty and don't allow them to achieve a fully dry wine. "Residual sugars are acceptable in varieties such as Riesling, but in a Cabernet Sauvignon for example, they will ruin the batch," says van Vuuren, who also notes that the residual sugars can leave the wine susceptible to microbial spoilage.

The Grape and Wine Genomics project will also probe social science questions raised by the research.

Dr. David Laycock is part of a team of five political scientists from Simon Fraser University, who are studying the social, political and regulatory contexts for scientific innovation as they relate to the wine industry.

Their work will help the Canadian industry and regulatory bodies better understand public concerns regarding the use of genomics technologies in the production of wine and the general food industry, and will help guide the responsible introduction of genomic technologies over the long term.

"Canadian industry can learn lessons from other wine producing countries and their attitudes towards scientific innovation," says Dr. Laycock. "The best science and government funding in the world can still run up against a brick wall if there isn't a receptive public environment and an intelligent regulatory framework."

"We are proud to support this innovative and valuable research, which positions BC and Canada as global leaders in genomic wine research," says Dr. Alan Winter, President and CEO of Genome BC. "The knowledge that this team will generate will benefit producing countries around the world."

Source: Genome BC

Explore further: Wine With a Double Shot of Vitamin C?

Related Stories

Wine With a Double Shot of Vitamin C?

March 21, 2006

Genetically designed grapes with elevated levels of vitamin C may be more than wishful thinking, according to researchers at the University of California, Davis, and the University of Adelaide, Australia, who recently identified ...

Finding the white wine difference

March 5, 2007

A CSIRO research team has pinpointed the genetic difference between red (or black) and white grapes – a discovery which could lead to the production of new varieties of grapes and ultimately new wines.

Bushfires leave a bad taste for wine lovers

November 13, 2008

( -- Australian winemakers are turning to the University of Adelaide to help identify grape varieties that are less susceptible to smoke from summer bushfires.

Protecting wine grapes from heat and drought

February 17, 2009

Deficit irrigation is an agricultural technique used to achieve a variety of results depending on the crop. For white wine grapes, it balances the crop load by limiting the canopy size so there aren't too many leaves shading ...

Taking the stress off yeast produces better wine

September 9, 2009

Turning grape juice into wine is a stressful business for yeasts. Dr Agustin Aranda from the University of Valencia, Spain has identified the genes in yeast that enable it to respond to stress and is investigating ways to ...

Recommended for you

Winter season reverses outcome of fruit fly reproduction

November 24, 2015

Male fruit flies could find their chances of fathering offspring radically reduced if they are last in the queue to mate with promiscuous females before winter arrives, according to new University of Liverpool research.

New insight into leaf shape diversity

November 24, 2015

Many of us probably remember the punnett squares by which we were introduced to the idea of genetic inheritance in school: a dominant allele in each of my brown-eyed parents hides a recessive allele that explains my blue ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.