Devil's Advocate: The Wine World Needs More Research. Not Less

Australia's Wine Research Institute is shrinking because of a reduction in funds. Robert Joseph believes this matters, and proposes a novel solution to the AWRI's challenging situation.

Reading time: 5m 30s

Robert Joseph - with horns - in a mad scientist laboratory. Image via Midjourney A!
Robert Joseph - with horns - in a mad scientist laboratory. Image via Midjourney A!

Sometimes, it’s a small news story that can make one think about the far larger picture. The Australian wine industry is famously in a mess - and not just because of the collapse of sales to China. This has, inevitably, had consequences many will not have considered. Amongst them is the fact that since 2022, as a result of falling production levies, the Australian Wine Research Institute has seen the loss of 24 of its employees - over one in six. This downsizing is continuing with some urgency, as AWRI managing director Mark Krstic told WBM. “Over a four-week period we will work through various options before confirming the outcome of the process.”

I’m a little embarrassed to have missed seeing an open letter written by two of Australia’s most respected wine professionals, Louise Rose and Brian Croser, to WBM in February about this situation. In it, they said “When our overseas colleagues and friends in the wine business become aware of the diminution of the AWRI they will be amazed that the Australian wine community could so damage one of its greatest competitive advantages.”

And, yes, I was surprised, just as I would be if I read that Gallo or LVMH had cut back on their investment into New Product Development (NPD). But I think that, in expecting amazement, Croser and Rose severely overestimate the global wine industry’s interest in, and appreciation for, research of any kind.
 

Information hub

The fact that the AWRI has been such an outlier speaks volumes in itself. The creation and essential component of a national industry that developed and grew extraordinarily quickly, it has acted as a remarkable information hub, sharing information and experiences across huge distances and between producers of very different sizes and shapes. If a winery in Tasmania had a problem, it would call the AWRI which, ideally, would respond by saying “well, others who’ve had a similar situation in Western Australia dealt with it successfully by doing X.”

When solutions haven’t been found, the institute has set about trying to find them while also looking for reasons for vinous phenomena that are often taken for granted. So, recent research has included ways to reduce reduction problems in canned wine, the jamminess and pepperiness of Syrah and using analysis of isotopic ratios of boron, oxygen and strontium to determine the country and region where a wine was produced.

The wine industry has generally been weak when it comes to research. Bordeaux University bottled a batch of cru classé wine under screwcap in the memorably poor vintage of 1967 and failed to do almost any further research into this alternative closure for the better part of the following 40 years, despite its adoption in Switzerland and — though briefly — in Australia in the 1980s. So, it was left to the AWRI to do the work in 1999.

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Shrinking resources

Research centres, usually universities, rarely have the resources they require. They depend on tuition fees, local and national grants, industry levies and payment for ‘commercial services’. And, like the AWRI, many of them are having to work with shrinking budgets.

Some companies  invest cash and resources into their own studies that they then generously publish for wider consumption. Top of my list of these would be two family-owned businesses: Sogrape in Portugal and Torres in Spain, which have come up with differing ways of dealing with climate change. For the Spanish company, the answer lies in resistant ‘ancestral’ varieties; for António Graça, head of research and development at Sogrape, it’s genotypes of existing ones. Both approaches compete with the apparent obsession in Germany for newly created and increasingly widely-planted PIWI crosses and Bordeaux University’s belief in importing varieties from other regions.

Meanwhile, across the wine world, even within the nursery material currently on offer, growers are almost certainly planting the wrong clones of the wrong varieties on the wrong rootstock in the wrong places.

 Differing ways of dealing with climate change: Ancestral varieties, genotypes of existing ones, PIWI

Okay, some might prefer ‘less than ideal’ to ‘wrong’, but you get my point. Vine-growing is a long-term project, and the climate and markets are changing fast. We can’t wait 30 years to see how things pan out. People need the best information now.

Before we replant vines or clear ground for new ones, we need a global approach to the necessary uprooting of 10-20% of the world’s wine-focused vineyards.
 

Growing needs

We need greater understanding of how organic, sustainable and regenerative agriculture all fit into the viticulture of the 21st century. If you ask three wine professionals you will probably get five definitions of these terms, and maybe a frank admission of ignorance or incomprehension.

  • We need to understand how to deal with unpredictable rain patterns. And the growing threat of fires.
     
  • We need to find new and more affordable ways to deal with increasingly frequent hailstorms.
     
  • We need to take a coordinated approach to genetically-modified yeasts and ways to reduce alcohol levels.
     
  • We need to conduct serious international research into why people – and not just young people in the US – are turning away from wine.
     
  • Beyond the decision by high-profile  wine critics to no longer review wines in heavy bottles, we need to research why this form of packaging is still so popular, especially in the US and Asia, and how to change these attitudes.

Where are we going?

I learned last week that a big German company has conducted its own broad and deep study into where the wine industry is headed in the context of climate change, altering consumer behaviour, tastes and attitudes, increased competition, and the growing strength of the anti-alcohol movement.

Wine regions, and businesses of every size should all be clamouring for this kind of research, but even if they were, they’d have no idea of how to get it, and insufficient money to pay for it.

In a properly-ordered world, there would be an industry-funded, global agency that allowed wine businesses across the planet to share experiences and problems, while accessing a broad range of data.

In a properly-ordered world, there would be an industry-funded, global agency that allowed wine businesses across the planet to share experiences and problems, while accessing a broad range of data. The obvious structure for it would be the OIV but, as I discovered in my interview with that organisation’s new boss, John Barker, its total current budget to cover all its activities is just $4m. This compares to the $10m (A$16m) the AWRI received from all sources in the year ending June 30, 2023.

And, as Barker revealed in that conversation, the OIV only bothers itself with stuff that its members have requested — a group of nations that inconveniently does not include the US or China, for example. None of the members has asked the OIV to look into PIWIs, so PIWIS go undiscussed.

IWRI: the International Wine Research Institute?

Maybe there’s another, more radical solution. If the Australian industry can’t maintain its current activities, what if the AWRI were to become the IWRI: the International Wine Research Institute?

Looking at the year-ending 2023 accounts, nearly A$6m of the A$16m came from “analytical and consulting services, contract research and other commercial income.” That’s a pretty healthy proportion (and not much less than the A$6.71m received from Wine Australia) but not surprising when you consider that anyone in another country wanting to road-test a new closure, for example, will almost automatically turn to AWRI for help.

An IWRI that worked with academic institutions, regional bodies and producers across the world, helping to attract industry funding for studies with local and global application could be a real game-changer. The best wine economists would have a structure that enabled them to conduct useful research properly, rather than with the limited resources they have today. And producers globally could become aware of innovations like Estaan, a new alternative to SO2.

Do I believe any such international effort is going to happen, in a world that seems to be growing more politically and nationally atomised by the day? No. But that doesn’t stop me from reading news stories and, in words attributed to the late Robert F. Kennedy, pausing to “dream of things that never were, and ask why not.”

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