Winemaking gets a high-tech makeover
EU-funded researchers have developed new ways to study the DNA of plants and soils used in winemaking as part of a wider effort to better understand how and when microbes help or harm different stages of production.
© Federico Rostagno - fotolia.com
The wine industry is a behemoth worth over EUR 220 billion globally. Vital microbes lie at the heart of the production process, providing nutrients, protecting against pathogens, triggering fermentation and creating the complex aromas and flavours that identify different bottles and regions. But despite their importance and the high stakes, surprisingly little is known about the delicate balance and interplay of the microbial community in winemaking.
With this as its call to action, the EU-funded MICROWINE project assembled, for the first time, a team of specialists from Europe and South America to study how microbes interact, from plant protection and nutrition through to wine fermentation processes.
Microbiology is not new to the wine industry but recent developments in next-generation DNA sequencing and powerful computers to analyse vast amounts of data provide much deeper insights into the full role of microbes throughout the viticulture pipeline.
Our research is improving understanding of microbial dynamics in wine production, helping producers to evaluate and treat diseases and raising awareness of what happens during fermentation and possibly how to control the process in more refined ways, says project coordinator Lars Hestbjerg Hansen, a professor at Aarhus University in Denmark.
Fine bouquet of first results
MICROWINE is already reporting promising results. The scientists have devised new broad-spectrum ways to examine DNA samples from plants and microbial communities covering different tissues relevant to vine health.
The research allowed us to develop our own technologies and algorithms, or formulas, for DNA extraction and data sequencing analysis, borrowing from machine learning and even game theory, says Alex Gobbi, a MICROWINE research fellow at Aarhus University. The analysis provides fine-grained information on soil and plant health, pathogens, as well as impacts on wine quality and flavour.
This wider branch of science is called metagenomics, which is the study of genetic material recovered directly from environmental samples. In this case, the samples have been collected from vineyards in some 50 different locations, including Germany and Denmark in Northern Europe, France, Georgia, Italy, Portugal and Spain in Central Europe, as well as Argentina, Australia and South Africa in the Southern hemisphere.
New mathematical models and bioinformatics tools are also being developed with the project team reporting that several are now ready for field testing. Causes and cures of various plant diseases are also being investigated, including disease modelling and experiments using bacterial alternatives to pesticides in a so-called biocontrol treatment.
Other research fellows are investigating how to characterise and prove terroir from different wine production areas worldwide, testing the reactions of different grape varieties to microbial change and developing new methods to identify old and rare wines using microbiome signatures, which is like a fingerprint for wines.
New yeast or bacteria isolated from the environment, which can work during winemaking to produce unique characteristics in the final product, is another promising line of research. This could provide insight into changes that happen in bottles once they are sealed and how bottle conditions change over time.
MICROWINE, which received funding through the EUs Marie SkÅ‚odowska-Curie actions programme, benefitted from the involvement of early-stage researchers.
We are educating a new generation of scientists that will transform the European wine industry to think of vines and wines as a complex but balanced synergy between hundreds of microbial species and individual plant components such as roots, leaves and grapes, says Hestbjerg Hansen.
By recognising that plants have diverse microbiomes, equivalent to those in humans, winemakers will be in a position to produce high-quality, richly flavoured wines in a sustainable way, he suggests. Findings from MICROWINE could also benefit other agricultural sectors, notes the team, helping to protect and enrich grain crops, for example, to meet the growing demand for food as the global population continues to rise.