By DR JACQUI MCRAE – Senior Research Scientist, The Australian Wine Research Institute

Wine is a beautiful and equal blend of craft and science. Many winemakers place much focus on the craft of winemaking but the science behind it can also provide a number of valuable keys to producing and selling top wines.

Consumer science

Lots of research has been undertaken to investigate the preferences of different types of wine lovers. However a recent study looked not only at what type of wine different consumers liked, but also the type of wine these same people actively didn’t like. Knowing this flip side of the coin can help create wines for different tastes or better target sales by better knowing the tastes of the market.

Dr Patricia Williamson at the AWRI found in a detailed sensory evaluation consumer study that around 40% of the Australian wine lovers surveyed liked red fruit and confectionary characters in their red wines but didn’t care for green or bitter flavours. Another 40% preferred dark fruit and more viscous wines and were strongly opposed to earthy characters. Only around 20% of people liked more complexity in their wine including oak and aged characters as well as some greenness. This same group disliked any sweetness in the wines.

Not all markets are the same.

A similar study found that half of the wine drinkers tested in China preferred oak flavours and sweetness but not dark fruit or high alcohol. While around 30% liked red fruit and rose flavours but not earthiness or reductive characters. Around 20% of those involved in this same test had a preference for fruity and vanilla flavours and had a strong dislike for bitterness and astringency. No groups in the Chinese market measured for this study disliked sweet red wines.

This sort of information is often used by big players in wine markets who want to create and market specific wines to meet the demands of different and targeted consumer groups. This approach doesn’t necessarily work for everyone but it’s worth first of all knowing, and then bearing in mind the preferences of your potential target consumers.

Flavour science

The composition of wines is a fascinating area of research. Not only are there thousands of molecules in wines but many of these molecules change over time because of wine acidity and the small amounts of oxygen present. Knowing which components contribute to key flavours in wines and where these components come from can help make better wine and tell its own unique story.

One such example is the delicious peppery character of cool-climate Shiraz wines. Dr Tracey Siebert at the AWRI found that the cause of this flavour is rotundone, a molecule with such potent intensity that a few drops would make an Olympic-sized swimming pool smell peppery.

Rotundone is one of the few molecules in wine that comes directly from grapes. This means that amounts of rotundone in grapes can be tracked across the vineyard and a wine made more or less peppery as preferred. Interestingly, rotundone has since been found by AWRI researchers to be the cause of the pepper smell in peppercorns, although it was first identified in wine.

Discovering new flavours and textures

A great thing about making wine is the opportunity to tweak different aspects of the process to dramatically change the outcome. This includes selecting which yeast will give the best outcome. Recent research in this area is revolutionising what’s possible with the humble wine yeast.

New yeast hybrids developed by Dr Jenny Bellon through traditional non-GM breeding processes at the AWRI can give greater complexity to white and sparkling wines than the parent yeast strains. Other research is discovering new sources of yeasts that may be able to create new types of wine.

This has already happened with beer. Bottles of beer were discovered in a 220-year-old shipwreck in Bass Strait. Dr Anthony Borneman of the AWRI was able to isolate living yeast cells from the bottles and discovered that the yeast inside was genetically different from modern beer yeast. Cultures of these yeast have now been used to make a recently released and much acclaimed commercial beer called James Squire’s – The Wreck. The same yeast may potentially be used in wine directly or as a parent of a hybrid yeast but already this story has captured people’s imagination.

Science know-how helps make great wine

Science can help create great wine and knowing some of the science behind these processes can be a useful tool in generating talking points about a wine. If you’re curious about the science behind your wines, the AWRI is here to help.