Vintage science

Vintage science

At Ontario's wine Institute space-age tools for an age-old craft
February 1, 2002

Before we get to the meat and potatoes of wine, first a few questions:

  • What sets great wine apart from the run of the mill?
  • Can you compensate for below-average grapes with biochemistry in the lab?
  • How can science unveil the winemaking secrets of Canada's old-world competitors?

Getting just a little woozy from all the serious wine-induced contemplation? You're not alone. Researchers at Canada's largest winemaking institute at Brock University are also searching for the answers to these questions and many others like them.

Brock University, located in the Niagara Peninsula, sits in the heartland of Canada's grape and wine industry. The university is home to the Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute (CCOVI), the home of Canada's only degree-granting, winemaking program. Here, research aimed at improving the quality of wines is rapidly transforming the age-old art of winemaking into a bona fide science.

"Canadian wines have suffered something of a perception problem over the years, but that's diminishing greatly with some of the great wines that are coming out of our country, " says Andy Reynolds, one of the institute's founding professors. "Canada is gradually positioning itself both at home and abroad as a premium wine-producing country. We are making world-class wines, there's no doubt about that."

Reynolds came to Brock in 1997 after the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council helped establish the CCOVI by providing funding for two industrial research chairs. Provincial funds, industry support, and funds for general infrastructure from the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) have all lead to flourishing growth at the new centre. "The CFI helped us a great deal, they've been invaluable in making sure that we've been a success."

Students, who come to the program, already skilled in chemistry and biology, make good use of all the high-tech equipment in the labs. There they examine the chemical properties of grape juices and the impact that adding sugar, different yeasts, and enzymes can have on the quality of the wine produced.

The institute has attracted students from all over, including some from Canada's second-largest winegrowing region, the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia.

During the summer growing season, you'll find Reynolds toiling in the vineyards, showing his students how to get at the root of good grapes and fine wines. "I generally say that wine is made in the vineyard, you certainly can't make good wine from lousy grapes," says Reynolds.

Together, Reynolds and his students are in the process of amassing a vast database of soil types-to determine what role soil plays in producing good grapes. Preliminary results have so far challenged traditional beliefs.

In July 2001, Reynolds put together a symposium called "Space Age Wine Growing." There, he presented early evidence that suggests that soil plays a relatively minor role in producing good grapes. In addition, he says that it's the vigour (or quality) of vines and the geographic location of the vineyard that play comparatively more vital roles.

Since vine location is seen as such a crucial element in growing good grapes, accurate mapping of vineyard locations is under way. Using Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) technology, researchers are making a precise record of the location of the region's vineyards. At the same time, they're monitoring the quality of grapes coming out of those vineyards. Taste tests or, as scientists prefer to call them, sensory studies, have already revealed distinct differences between wines made from grapes grown on the lakeshore and those from the Niagara bench.

Researchers at the CCOVI plan to use the location studies to establish new wine appellations that could bring a higher value to wines coming from specific areas and help improve the world market share of Canadian wines.

Benefits

You wouldn't have to twist the arm of anybody in Canada's wine industry to get them to admit one thing: the international wine market can be pretty competitive.

Faced with competition from countries that started stomping grapes thousands of years ago, the CCOVI finds itself playing a supportive role in helping Canada's grape and wine industry make a dent in its big-league competition. And it's the kind of support that's becoming increasingly important to wine producers.

Through its leadership role in enhancing and co-ordinating scientific research-and through programs aimed at raising the profile and reputation of our wineries-the institute is giving the wine industry an important technological edge

By providing technical and library services, the CCOVI plays an active role in disseminating information on new trends, technologies, and scientific developments. In fact, the institute's Wine Library-where samples of Canadian wines of every grape variety will be stored and aged-is a central part of ongoing studies that are envisioned to span decades, even generations.

And as David proved when he went up against Goliath-brute strength is nice, but brains can really help win the day. So it's no accident that a central focus of the institute is its educational agenda. For Canada's wine industry to thrive, being smart is the key. It must train its future winemakers in the latest grape-growing and winemaking practices. As a result, the institute offers Canada's only degree-granting program in Viticulture and Oenology, and has already attracted faculty and students from many other wine-producing countries.

Partners

Okanagan University College
Located in Western Canada's largest grape-growing and winemaking region, Okanagan University College is collaborating with other centres of wine research to develop expertise in grape and wine chemistry.