I visited the Australian Wine Research Institute as part of the Landmark Australia Tutorial in 2009.
It was smart of the organizers of the Landmark Tutorial to begin the week with a visit to the Australian Wine Research Institute (AWRI), because this is one of the jewels of the country’s wine industry. The AWRI rightly considers itself to be a provider of resources to the Australian Wine industry. Every grape grower and winemaker pays a levy, and the Federal Government then doubles this. The budget works out at about A$60 m for wine research, which is slightly less than what Bordeaux spends on research and marketing. As a private company, though, the AWRI has to compete for this pot.
There are four streams of activity. Research accounts for some 70% of the AWRI’s activity, and it is headed up by Marcus Herderich. Then there’s development work, which is run by Peter Godden. An example of this would be the development of Near Infra Red (NIR) spectroscopy for non destructive testing of wine. The third area is extension work – taking research and disseminating it to the growers and winemakers. This area is looked after by Con Simos, and it includes AWACs (advanced wine assessment courses), publications, and the Australian Wine Industry Technical Conference. Getting research outcomes out to industry is seen as a high priority. Finally, there is the commercial service, run by Vince O’Brien, which is in effect a ‘pay per view’ set-up. Samples are submitted for analysis – as many as 100 000 in a year. This gives the AWRI a valuable snapshot of what is going on in the Australian wine industry. For example, data now exist on trends in alcohol levels, volatile acidity and Brettanomyces.
We were given some examples of the sorts of projects the AWRI has been involved with. One recent, newsworthy project has been the identification of a compound responsible for pepperiness in Australian Shiraz. Called rotundone, it is found in lots of herbs and vegetables, and it’s incredibly potent. For example, just 5 mls of rotundone would be enough to make all wine in Australia taste spicy. Finding it in wine is tricky, though, because of this potency: it’s like trying to identify one person out of six billion. Technically speaking, rotundone is a sesquiterpene. The aim of this research? It’s to provide Australian winemakers or viticulturalists with the management techniques to be able to moderate spiciness in their wines. However, it’s also of interest that a proportion of people – as many as a fifth – simply can’t smell rotundone.
The research publication states: “Whereas most of the sensory panelists were sensitive to rotundone, approximately 20% could not detect this compound, even in water, at the highest concentration tested (4000 ng/L). Thus, the sensory experience of two consumers enjoying the same glass of Shiraz wine or sharing the same meal seasoned with pepper might be very different. The variation in individual sensitivity to rotundone suggests that the way wines containing this compound are assessed by consumers or wine judges could vary substantially from one person to another.”
Another important project looks at developing low alcohol-producing yeast – in effect, trying to turn back more than 2000 years of evolution. It isn’t simply a question of developing a yeast that is capable of producing less alcohol from the same amount of sugar, because this is already possible through using specific yeast strains to the measure of 3 or 4%. There has to be somewhere suitable for these compounds to go: it is necessary for the sugar to go to an alternative metabolite that is something the consumer wants to see in wine.
The AWRI has also been an important player in the closures debate. Since 1999 it has been running a study that has really turned the wine world on its head in terms of identifying cork related problems. Currently, around 85% of all wines are under screwcap in Australia.
The AWRI has also done work on the identification of taints found by Australian winemakers in their wines. ‘Every year, we seem to have an emergency,’ says Simos. ‘We offer a free service for winemakers and growers who have problems, for example in analysing or tasting samples.’ This is a great initiative that allows people to use the information received to change their winemaking practices.
Last year, the AWRI did a major sensory trial in China, putting Australian and foreign wines in front of consumers in three Chinese cities. If the Chinese consumers show a preference for certain styles of wine, this kind of information can be fed back to winemakers and researchers. The question then becomes one of how winemakers can we manage these styles in winemaking.
The AWRI extension service gets some 6000 enquiries a year, across all these areas. The AWRI also has a team of viticulturalists and an extensive library which are provided as resources for growers and winemakers. In addition, the AWRI works on wine and health, offering lots of advice and getting involved in the regulatory issues.
One of the most well known aspects of the AWRI’s activity is its advanced wine assessment course (AWAC). We were given a brief introduction to the AWAC by means of a tasting of two flights of ten wines. ‘Since 1992 we have trained 800 specialists as wine show judges, by means of 27 different AWACs,’ says Simos. The emphasis behind the AWAC is in training and assessing judges for the wine show system, which is an important part of the Australian wine industry. Each AWAC is a four-day course looking at 320 different wines from around the world with the involvement of 16 wine show judges.
What are they looking for on the part of a taster? Speed, accuracy and reliability are the core skills. In the blind AWAC tastings it is common to mix up the wines, with many duplicates. After four days, the scores for each participant are collected and people are given statistics on their reliability.Australia has 9 national and 52 regional shows each year. Here, we were shown wines from two flights of the Sydney Royal Show: 10 Rieslings and 10 Shiraz wines.
Decisions made in blind tasting settings can be influenced by many factors, including emotion, physiology, the preceding wines and the environment. ‘We want to make a rational decision taking these factors into account,’ says Simos. The most important theme is that judges assess one wine at a time. In addition, on the first day of each AWAC, wines are spiked with different fault compounds as an educational exercise.
On a 20 point scale, the top judges show variation of 0.5 points or less when assessing the same wines in different contexts at different times. That’s an impressive achievement. But, of course, there is another element to tasting beyond simply the physical discriminatory power and reliability that these statistics demonstrate. This is the issue of judgement of style. There has been some criticism that the Australian wine show system has fossilized styles and stifled innovation: essentially, that there has merely been approval of the status quo. Perhaps this is a little unfair, because many credit the rigorous show system with improving the average quality of Australian wines a great deal.
In this session we tasted the 20 wines blind and then all shared our results. There was quite a bit of discrepancy among the verdicts, both among the tutorial participants and also among the AWRI staff who were taking part. Also, I don’t think any of us realized how many duplicates were included, but this made it a good exercise to see how consistent our scoring was.
Here’s how I did with the dupes (scores out of 20). Bear in mind I was jet-lagged, before you judge too harshly! Also, apparently you get better through the course of an AWAC as you tune into the wines and the tasting protocol (or maybe that’s what they told us to make us feel better about our performance). The results here are the number of the wine (= means that the two numbers represented duplicates of the same wine), and then the scores given for each.
- 5=7 – 18, 17.5
- 3=6 – 16.5, 16.5
- 2=8 – 15.5, 15.5
- 1=9 – 18.5, 17.5
- 4=10 – 17.5, 18
- 1=3=8 – 17, 15.5, 17
- 2=4 – 17, 17
- 5=10 – 15.5, 16.5
- 6=9 – 17, 18.5
- 7 – 15