To lead or to follow: Fifty years of Grape and Wine Innovation

By Stuart Thomson, Executive Director, GWRDC

The end of 2013 provides a fitting opportunity for the grape and wine industry to celebrate the benefits innovation has brought to the sector over the past 50 years and the possibilities R&D and its subsequent adoption may create in the future.

Fifty years of Innovation

The last fifty years has seen Australia develop significant infrastructure and technical expertise while adopting new technologies and processes, securing its role as an international leader of the industry.  With substantial assistance from State and Commonwealth governments, the Australian grape and wine industry has nurtured and maintained key R&D capabilities. These are capabilities that have and continue to serve the industry, ensuring it remains internationally competitive and sustainable.

It is not possible within this article to do justice to the specific technologies and processes that have greatly benefited the grape and wine sector. Therefore, the following passages are a high level view of some key technological areas over the last five decades to remind the reader of the importance of continuing to innovate.

Within the vineyard there has been considerable adoption and adaption of new technologies such as mechanisation; new irrigation technologies; soil characterisation; new agrochemicals and spray management regimes; the use of new rootstocks and grape varieties. The continual implementation of new and evolving technologies has enabled Australia to compete in the global market, primarily by reducing input costs and providing better tools for ensuring a more consistent, reliable, and reproducible product. Ultimately this would not have been possible without the collaborative efforts of grapegrowers, winemakers, research organisations, consultants and suppliers who have ultimately taken risks to invent, develop, adapt and/or adopt such technologies and practices.

The story is no different within the winery. The continual adoption of new oenological technologies and practices has ensured Australian wineries have access to strategies to reproducibly manufacture wines to a consistent level of quality, be it “premium” or “commercial”, at reduced cost. Innovation that has played a major role in increasing wineries’ competitiveness includes; the identification and elimination of wine taints; increased analytical technologies for assessing and optimising winemaking practices; understanding and controlling the chemical and biological processes associated with sensory attributes; the development of objective measures of quality; understanding the effects of oxidation; improved wine yeasts and malolactic bacterium; waste minimisation and recycling; minimising the environmental footprint of wineries; the adoption of lean manufacturing paradigms; mechanisation; and the development of wine packaging for storage and transportation.

It should be recognised that considerable technical effort has been required to adapt and implement many of these technologies for specific regional use and as such, these efforts have ensured the Australian grape and wine sector has benefitted from the early adoption of new innovation.

As the pace of technology has increased, so too have efforts to ensure the relevant and timely dissemination of information to the grape and wine sector.  Technology is only useful if adopted, and the combined efforts of the States, the Commonwealth, and the grape and wine sector, has ensured the sector’s continued access to the latest information and practices. Such knowledge has enabled winemakers and grapegrowers to effectively cope with difficult environmental and seasonal events. Furthermore, programs like GWRDC’s Regional Program and the various workshops it and other bodies fund, has ensured all regions have access to information. This has enabled each region to undertake projects that are of specific regional importance.

Australia’s grape and wine sector has benefitted considerably over the last fifty years by its capacity to innovate and adopt the latest technologies. This has been largely supported through individual companies and R&D funding provided by industry levies, the Commonwealth government, and state governments. Past evidence demonstrates that Australia has been a world leader in the wine sector and that those companies that have chosen to innovate have, in many cases, been able to better adapt to the fallout from the current economic malaise the sector is experiencing.

Current Challenges

While past history demonstrates the resilience of the sector, the immediate future presents some significant challenges. The contraction in levy funds brought about by the contraction in the annual winegrape crush, coupled with the ongoing effects of inflation, has seen an ongoing reduction to R&D expenditure. For example, GWRDC’s income alone has been reduced by more than 25% in real terms (comparing the 2006-07 and 2011-12 financial years) and this has been further compounded by cuts to other programs. It should also be noted that the grape and wine sector has also expanded its R&D requirements in recent years to include research on consumer preferences and export markets, while GWRDC has increased its industry extension activities to meet growing demand. This has further constricted research funding to the more conventional research areas of viticulture and oenology.

In an effort to ensure the ongoing sustainability of the grape and wine R&D sector, greater emphasis is being placed on deriving greater efficiencies within research organisations, promoting strategic R&D collaboration, reducing duplication of resources and infrastructure, prioritising R&D activities, and coordinating extension activities between all providers. While these measures will result in more productive programs, the reality of economic climate has meant all research providers have had to endure funding cuts.

While considerable financial challenges exist within the sector it is important to understand that the ongoing need to innovate is paramount. This critical factor has tended to be overlooked in recent times in favour of less strategic, fragmented sector agendas. If current commercial best practice demonstrates anything, it is that innovation separates the market leaders from the followers.  For the more sceptical readers, they need only to compare and contrast the fates of Polaroid and Cirque du Soleil. No amount of advertising could arrest Polaroid’s commercial decline, while Cirque du Soleil managed to create success from what most thought to be an obsolete industry genre.

The challenges faced by the R&D sector have also created new opportunities including ; greater collaboration; more multidisciplinary projects (ie combinations of consumer preferences, viticulture and oenology); and greater engagement between multiple researcher providers and industry.  These opportunities may ultimately result in changes to the way the grape and wine sector conducts and adopts R&D in the future. In short we all need to be open to change to survive.

To the Future

The pipeline of current innovation is very exciting. While no one can accurately predict the future, there exist some key R&D areas that are likely to provide benefits. Current research investigating “objective measures of quality” should provide both grapegrowers and winemakers with better quantitative measure to assess grape and wine quality and fitness for purpose.

The advances in geographic information system (GIS) have enabled aerial imagery to assist grapegrowers in the implementation of precision viticultural techniques. This will be strengthened by the future development of in-field measurement systems, predictive software systems, and precision harvesting techniques, thus enabling many more producers to selectively monitor and harvest. These technologies, coupled with new innovation to measure vine water balance and general vine health, will enable grapegrowers to accurately assess both irrigation and agrichemical requirements.

Current genetic research being undertaken within Australia will result in the scientific community gaining a better understanding of vine genetics, allowing researchers to identify specific varieties of vitis vinifera that are best suited to Australia’s regional conditions.  The benefits of this work will undoubtably flow to grapegrowers in future years, providing vines that have better tolerance to pest, disease and climactic conditions.

No doubt this information will ultimately assist growers in growing grapes to reproducible and quantifiable quality standards.

The explosion in the development of analytical chemical and biological equipment over the last 15 years has provided the research community with tools that enable new measurements to be developed at greater speed and with greater accuracy. The development of handheld and in-field equipment is also providing new opportunity for data to be collected in real time. This is likely to have significant consequences for winemakers and grapegrowers alike, as it will provide greater opportunities for processes to be measured, monitored and controlled. From consigning stuck ferments to history, to developing new protocols for measuring, monitoring and controlling specific wine characteristics, the ongoing development of new measurement techniques will provide winemakers with a capacity to better understand and control parameters affecting the quality of their wines. Ultimately the holy grail of the sector lies in the capacity to implement cutting edge technologies to monitor and control quality characteristics from the vine to the glass, and the capability to provide cost-effective technologies and procedures to achieve this aim.

The ongoing development of yeast and malolactic bacteria, the development of new lower cost clarification techniques, the implementation of lean manufacturing paradigms, and the replacement of energy intensive processes  represent incremental steps wineries will continue to make in the future. Furthermore, there will be benefits derived from future R&D seeking to reduce the environmental footprint of wineries.

Understanding consumer preferences of both the domestic and export markets, and how to deliver wines that meet those preferences, will enable the sector to tailor its product offering to individual markets. It will also assist marketing professional to tailor key messages for varying cultural tastes.

The Australian grape and wine industry is entering an exciting period of change and innovation which should provide the industry with many success stories for the next fifty years. At GWRDC we believe innovation is a major component to ensuring the long term viability of the industry and we look forward to continuing to work with the the creators, the inventors, the leaders, the big, the small, and the risk takers. Let’s lead, not follow.