Kiwi Wine Science

I have spent the past couple of weeks doing some work at Lincoln University‘s Centre for Viticulture and Oenology (CV&O).  My role there has been to update their website, including setting up a blog and writing a bunch of news stories that will be posted over the next several months.  This has been a great opportunity to meet with faculty and students involved with the Centre – a very diverse bunch that includes experts in chemistry, molecular biology, viticulture, plant pathology, soil science, ecology, marketing, and tourism.

 (Ivey Hall – the Lincoln University library)

This opportunity has allowed me to get a taste of the caliber and variety of research that goes on at the CV&O, which, while small, is very highly regarded in the wine world.  Researchers at the Centre work with collaborators from across New Zealand (in academia, industry, and the government) and from around the world.  The University also draws students from far and wide – I share an office with grad students from China, Chile, and the US, and an intern from France.

I have learned about research into the wine consumption habits of Generation Y (in fact, if you were born after 1977 and are of legal drinking age in your home country, you can be a part of the latest study on this subject by completing the brief, confidential survey found here), the impact of installing biodiversity trails on the wine tourism experience, the use of crushed glass (from used wine bottles, of course!) as a reflective mulch spread in vineyards to improve grape quality, the effect of UV radiation on grapevines and the wine produced from them, the characterization of New Zealand Pinot Noir regions by sensory and chemical analysis of the wines, and much, much more.

In my role as website updater/reporter/blogger I have also learned a lot about how the Centre wants to present itself, and to whom.  In addition to attracting graduate students, as is the goal of any good research institution, the CV&O is particularly interested in sharing its findings with the wine industry.  Many projects are financed with industry support, and most are of direct consequence to the industry.  Findings are sometimes published as reports for New Zealand Winegrowers, and research projects seem to reflect the challenges and needs of wine producers in New Zealand.  Thus the V&O research at Lincoln is very much on the “applied” end of the research spectrum, and I would be interested to know if there are many wine scientists out there doing what would be considered “basic” research.  My suspicion is that most wine science would fall on the “applied” side, for the fairly obvious reason that it is tied very closely to an economically important industry, but also, and more interestingly, for the more nuanced reason that wine science is embedded in wine making – a tradition of craftsmanship and artisanship.  As such, the practice of making wine depends on the individual skill, creativity, and experience of the winemaker and grape grower, and thus carries some inherent tension with the tenets* of basic science, which, at least on the surface, suggest that logic alone should allow us to “solve” the problems of winemaking.  But, of course, it can never be as simple as this, and this, I believe, is why wine science looks a little bit different, a little more applied, than some other disciplines.

(*tenet is a strong word used here for effect – I don’t actually intend to suggest that ‘science’ is a well-defined or rigid category, but that’s for another post. or maybe a whole book…)

And this assessment seems to be in line with the image that the industry, at least in New Zealand, is working to promote.  The research section of the 2011 New Zealand Winegrowers annual report closes by saying:

“Research and the scientific process can never provide all of the answers to the complex challenges facing growers and winemakers.  Nor can it replace the role of experience and good observation by practitioners.  The important role of research remains in helping understand the word in which we our growrs and winemakers operate.  Understanding this complexity and the impact of their responses to it can help our producers make better informed decisions and ultimately make better wine.”

So, apparently, science and art can coexist, and the industry is dependent upon such coexistence.  It just might mean that the science and art don’t look quite like they do in other contexts.

Christchurch: A Reminder of Nature’s Power

In September 2010 and February 2011, earthquakes devastated the Christchurch area.  Much of the city center was destroyed by damage from the shaking itself, and some of the suburbs were impacted most heavily by what is known as soil liquefaction.  Aftershocks continue to be felt, and the city is only just beginning to reopen, let alone recover.  Still, there is much evidence of solidarity and a commitment to move forward throughout the city.

The heart of the city center is inaccessible, blocked off by chain link fences.  Here you can see the recently deconsecrated Christchurch Cathedral, slated for partial demolition after irreparable damage from the February quake.

Repairs underway at the Christchurch Arts Centre are expected to take years to complete.

Many of the city’s streets remain blocked off, detours and alternative bus routes remain in use.

A festive piece in the “Road Cone Art Exhibition” at the Botanical Gardens, a series of road cone themed works in honor of the 60,000 road cones set up on Christchurch streets today.

More damage in the city center.

Hearts on display at the Canterbury Museum as part of the Hearts for Christchurch project initiated by Napier’s Evie Harris to show support and solidarity for those affected by the quake.  The more than 4,000 hearts on display come from all over the world.

Photos of what has become known as “Container City.”  A few stores in one of the city’s main shopping districts have recently reopened inside temporary “buildings” made from shipping containers.  The area is now bustling with residents eager to return to life as usual, but sits just on the edge of the still-closed city center, in acknowledgment of the reality that still faces the recovering city.

A damaged house on the cliffs of Sumner, one of the beach suburbs of Christchurch.

Just across the road from the photo above.  It is incredibly humbling to be reminded of the strength of nature, especially when also surrounded by its beauty.

Stereotypical New Zealand

More soon on wine science from Lincoln University, but for now, everything you would expect to find in New Zealand (except an All Black and a kiwi bird, both of which I am still waiting to see in person…)

(yes, really, they are everywhere)

(kiwifruit grow on a vine! photo taken at lovely and organic La Marguerite Orchard in Katikati)

(kiwifruit buds.)

As cool as it was to learn about kiwifruit production, it is also important to note that there is currently a lot of apprehension amongst kiwifruit growers in NZ, as the incredibly harmful Pseudomonas syringae pv. actinidiae (Psa) bacteria has begun to spread across kiwifruit orchards in New Zealand.  Though the bacteria carries no risk for humans (you do NOT have to worry about getting sick from kiwifruit!), it is devastating the vines in New Zealand and an effective treatment has yet to be found.  An unfortunate and forceful reminder of how much risk is involved in any agricultural work.

On a lighter note, some spectacular views to round out this series of photographic proof that everything you hear about NZ is true:


(Mount Maunganui)

(even from a bus the scenery is incredible)