A machine-learning algorithm could help change the face of New Zealand Pinot Noir, by offering data-based decisions for optimal Pinot production.
With a team of experts on board and a new research winery about to open, the future looks bright for the BRI. He shares some of the excitement.
How has the Bragato Research Institute (BRI) changed the outlook for wine science in New Zealand?
BRI will add to the wine science capability in New Zealand with a focus on both science excellence and industry impact. Working closely with existing research providers is key - we’re all too small for duplication. We need to build expertise in our own niches and work collaboratively. Where we think BRI can have the most impact is in the link between science and industry – bringing New Zealand and global expertise together, focused on our industry’s priorities.
How does New Zealand sit on the world stage for wine research?
I’d say we’re a small but important player and make a valuable contribution to global viticulture and wine science, and also that we’re well connected internationally. There are specific areas where New Zealand is at the forefront of research and development - for example, around Sauvignon Blanc genetics and cool-climate Sauvignon Blanc production. The Goddard Lab’s work at University of Auckland was the first to show differences in yeast communities across different locations – terroir at the microbial scale if you like. Work at Lincoln University and with Plant & Food Research developed a unique understanding of grapevine epigenetics (how environmental factors cause genetic responses in vines) and produced more than 2,000 new Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir clones - the only country to actively generate new non-GMO clones. The UV work done from Professor Brian Jordan’s lab at Lincoln is regarded as world-leading.
What have been some of the major science initiatives in recent years?
The Lower Alcohol Wine programme is coming into its last year of seven and has given industry a suite of tools to enable production of high-quality wines that are naturally lower in alcohol. We’re seeing wines from the programme win medals against full-strength competitors. With impressive growth in low/no alcohol segments, the results of the programme put New Zealand at the forefront of this opportunity.
Vineyard Ecosystems is about understanding the overall vineyard ecosystem and interrelationships to enable more sustainable production. We’re in year five of this seven-year programme. The Pinot Noir programme aims to deliver tools to improve Pinot Noir yields without reducing quality. Understanding the drivers of quality is a key first step.
The Spray Days programme, delivering best practice for powdery mildew control, is an excellent example of practical research and development with immediate impacts for sustainability and profitability. The mechanical thinning trial is another good example of that type of work, validating efficacy and cost savings, and investigating added benefits for disease prevention.
Plus, there’s a myriad of projects that support more sustainable production (for example, Dr Mark Krasnow’s work on irrigation), dealing with Mealy Bug (Dr Vaughan Bell), Grapevine Trunk Disease (Dr Robin MacDiarmid, Dion Mundy, Dr Mark Sosnowski) and many more.
How will the BRI research winery impact on the ability to progress innovations in the industry?
It’s critical that we keep our consumers front of mind. Understanding impacts of different techniques in the vineyard and winery on final wines is a must
The research winery provides the opportunity to take trials though to finished wines in a tightly controlled experimental environment, giving confidence that any difference seen in the wine is due to experimental variables, not a random winemaking impact.
The winery also provides an opportunity for BRI to conduct commercial trials for companies, providing important connections, and an important revenue stream. As well as conducting research, the winery is an experiment in and of itself – we’ll be trialling new equipment, and developing, trialling and modelling ways to improve the sustainability of winery operations.
What’s the most exciting thing happening in wine science right now?
Being exposed to science as a non-scientist, I’m amazed not just by the research and development that has been and is being done, but also by what we still don’t know. As we learn more, we identify new questions – that’s the nature of science. I think it’s exciting that we’re starting to explore the microbial world in, on, and under vines, to understand how microbial communities contribute to naturally healthy and productive vines. There are also opportunities coming out of new genomics technologies to understand, improve and manage crops. Scientists in New Zealand and overseas are collaborating to use this data in revolutionary ways for capturing natural genetic diversity, precision breeding, plant stress adaptation and pathogen control. Cloud data analysis is starting to move these tools from the lab and into the field.
At the other end of the spectrum, there’s a significant opportunity to ensure the information we have from our own work, and work overseas, is packaged up and communicated to the industry so it can be used to deliver value. We’re already seeing real benefit and industry support for our tech transfer and extension work and I’m excited to see this ramp up this year. Advances in computing, data management, communications, imaging and sensing technology are allowing the development of exciting technologies that are beginning to change the way we manage vineyards. Examples include yield assessment, evaluation of plant water stress, apps for health and safety and fleet management, autonomous machinery and precision sprayers.
What is the biggest challenge ahead for the industry and how can BRI help navigate it?
Uncertainties relating to climate change, global markets, and production costs are at front of mind for many producers. BRI must continue to work very closely with industry to understand their priorities and align our research programme with these. Climate change will be BRI’s largest single programme of work, spanning mitigation options through to adaption strategies. We’re looking at both short and long-term options, but also possible opportunities. There’s no one silver bullet. It will require work in a wide range of areas. As well as doing some of that work, BRI will play a key role in co-ordinating a much broader programme across science disciplines and providers.
What’s your favourite spot in the research winery, and why?
I think the conference room will be a special place. With a view through to the research winery, you’ll be able to see the tanks and the research winery in action. It will be a place we will make available for industry use, for education, and where we can host industry members, partners, and visitors.
The conference table being made from recycled totara cuve staves is a beautiful nod to our history while we focus on the future.