New research from the University of British Columbia’s Wine Research Centre (WRC) may help rewrite the rules for the age-old tradition of winemaking; unlocking the genetic secrets of grapevines and wine yeasts while helping wineries boost the value of their prized creations.
Now celebrating its 10th year, the WRC has attracted world-renowned scientists and close to $17 million in research funding, including a new $3.4 million project announced Wednesday by Genome Canada and Genome BC.
“Over the past 10 years, our Wine Research Centre has had a tremendous impact on science and industry, and has created a community of scientists and wine makers who are helping to grow and enhance our understanding and appreciation for Canadian winemaking,” says UBC President Stephen Toope.
The research undertaken at UBC bridges the sciences of grape growing (viticulture) and winemaking (enology). These research projects are supported in part by funding from Genome BC and Genome Canada.
“Our objective is to conduct leading-edge research that will prepare the B.C. wine industry for the future,” says WRC Director Hennie van Vuuren.
“Along with my colleagues Drs. Steven Lund and Vivien Measday, we are using powerful new technologies that tell us how grapes and wine yeast respond globally to environmental and winemaking conditions.”
A state-of-the-art Wine Library, with the capacity to house more than 22,000 bottles under ideal conditions, was built shortly after the inception of the WRC. B.C. wines are carefully aged in the library and tested annually over a period of up to 24 years in order to discover which grape varietals thrive best in different regions.
“We look to the Wine Research Centre’s cutting edge research and support as a vital and necessary resource to lead Canadian winemaking to the forefront of the global wine business,” says Howard Soon, Sandhill Master Winemaker.
Significant milestones to date include:
- A patent for the world’s first genetically enhanced wine yeast has been approved for commercial winemaking by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Health Canada and Environment Canada. This yeast makes drinking wine possible for the 30 per cent of the world’s population that are sensitive to bioamines, which are created during the malolactic fermentation and can cause headaches.
- Creation of yeast strains, patent pending, that produce lower amounts of ethanol alcohol and another producing increased levels of alcohol important for distilleries.
- Discovery of the Fermentation Stress Response genes in wine yeasts that are highly active during the later stages of wine fermentation. Analyses of the function of these genes form part of the Genome BC and Genome Canada projects.
- Analysis of the grapevine’s “black box,” which could help Canadian growers better understand how the vine and berry respond annually to changing viticultural practices and environmental conditions at the molecular level. Genome BC’s commitment to this project will help boost the value of fruit for Canadian growers and allow winemakers to tailor-make vintages.
- In association with UBC Continuing Studies, a unique program in wine education has been presented over the past eight years to engage adult learners of all levels of wine knowledge.
- The recruitment of leading scientists such as Drs Joerg Bohlmann, Dr. Jenny Bryan (Michael Smith Laboratory), Christoph Borchers (director, University of Victoria Proteomics Centre) and James Cluer (Master of Wine) to collaborate with scientists in the WRC.
There are currently 28 scientists at the WRC who are conducting research into the molecular genetics of wine yeasts, grapevines and the aging of wines produced in B.C. Graduates from the Wine Research Centre now hold positions as professors at universities in Canada and South Africa and as winemakers in France.