The Knowledge Broker
Antonio Graça describes himself as a knowledge broker, providing scientific knowledge to the Portuguese wine giant, Sogrape’s winemakers, while giving academics vines, grapes, wine types and data to use as a ‘playground’ in which to test their ideas. A former winemaker and oenologist, he became head of the company’s Research and Development department in 2018.
The EU MED-GOLD Initiative
Since then, he has directed his attention to a wide range of topics, but right now, he’s most excited by Sogrape’s involvement in MED-GOLD, a €5m EU Mediterranean-focused initiative that brings together scientists, software programmers, farmers and 16 organizations from seven Mediterranean countries all of whom are involved in the production of wine, olive oil and pasta.
Together, they are using the EU’s Copernicus satellite data to help the three sectors become ’climate smart’– and to stop them relying on “memory, inadequate data… and unrepresentative, distant weather stations.”
Visualizing Ideal Climate Conditions
Bringing olives wine and wheat together not only revealed how models for one crop can be easily adapted to others, but also two common problems: poor communication between growers and scientists, and confusion between weather and climate.
“Weather is what you experience; climate is a statistic analysis of weather over a long period, typically 30 years.” Graça explains. “When non-scientists think about climate, their minds play tricks on them”. They remember when the forecasters were wrong more often than when they are right. “Our brains are hardwired to better remember our causes for loss than for satisfaction.”
Research for Climate Change Resilient Grapes
MED-GOLD tools should help growers visualize how the ideal climate conditions for each variety will be geographically distributed, allowing them to select the ideal varieties, rootstocks and clones. While others are focusing on PIWI hybrids, Graça believes that climate change resilience may be found in creating polyclonal selections of carefully selected genotypes of Vitis vinifera. This thinking lies behind Sogrape’s collection of 70 grape varieties, and no fewer than 200 genotypes of Touriga Nacional.
And Genetically Edited Wines?
Using text editor-like CRISPR techniques (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats), it is, Graça believes, now potentially possible to cut and paste sequences within one organism to mimic genes typical of another. Despite widespread beliefs to the contrary, under EU law this is not illegal, but any wine produced from CRISPR grapes would have to be labelled as a genetically modified organism (GMO).
Europe, he regrets, has been slow to consider the implications, especially “given the power the new techniques have to produce new organisms at a speed far greater than it is possible to study and assess their benefits and consequences.” Before this research is done, he concludes “all discussion of its use in grapes or wine is just a risky speculation”.
“There is no causality between a specific set of yeast species and strains and the taste of wine from a certain place in every year.”
An End to Regional Typicity?
If CRISPR technology could make it possible to produce, say, Marlborough Sauvignon or Burgundian Pinot Noir in very different conditions, what would this mean for regional typicity? Graça responds that “the greatest challenge is for regions that made a name for a specific sensory style based on just one or two varieties” but, in any case, talking about a particular place’s typical sensory character will get harder because, with climate change, there will be so many years when you can’t get it.”
Those who believe that, whatever the weather, the a vineyard’s grapes’ native yeasts on will communicate its terroir to the wine, will be disappointed by Graça’s informed opinion on the subject.
“From my experience and the science I know” he says carefully, there appears to be “no causality between a specific set of yeast species and strains and the taste of wine from a certain place in every year.” After painstaking analysis, he has found that “species and strains present in the vineyard can vary widely from one year to the next, seeming to reflect…a climatic effect.”
Robot Tasters Instead of Human Palates?
Finally, Graça says he has “no doubt that we already have electronic tools capable of detecting faults in wine” and, more shockingly for a senior panel chair at the Mundus Vini competition, that after studying recent developments in artificial intelligence, he is convinced it will be possible to develop sensors and algorithms that can “come very close to the way humans feel aromas, tastes and flavours”.
But to make that kind of tasting machine we would have to discover what human consciousness is. “And to do that would take us to the border of vastly more complicated ethical issues…”
The results of MED-GOLD will be officially launched on March 29/30 at an online Showcase Event. For free tickets go to MED-GOLD.EU
To read the full interview, including Antonio Graça’s experiences and views on a wide range of topics including vintages, appellations, field blends and micro biodiversity, go to the LONG READ INTERVIEW.