Taking an untargeted approach to research is not normally something to boast about, but over the next 12 months it will help to give winemakers a much clearer idea of whether smoke has affected their grapes and how they should respond.
After winning the viticulture and oenology category in the 2017 Science and Innovation Awards for Young People in Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry sponsored by Wine Australia, Australian Wine Research Institute (AWRI) Research Scientist Dr Natoiya Lloyd is about to begin a new project that for the first time will use a technique called metabolomics to investigate smoke taint.
In simple terms, metabolomics provides the ability to study all the compounds in a biological system (in this case grape juice) rather than just the ones you already know about. It is thus ‘untargeted’, and gives a much broader picture of what exactly is going on.
When the AWRI screens grapes for smoke taint, it is looking for evidence to support a winemaker’s suspicion that something is wrong with a batch of grapes and that they should proceed with caution – if at all. The traditional approach is to target compounds that are commonly linked with the problem and that can be effective – but not always.
‘We have had cases where the grapes come up clean but winemakers still say that, from a sensory perspective, they seem tainted, or that they didn’t behave during fermentation as they should have’, Dr Lloyd said. ‘Our aim is to evaluate smoke taint in a holistic manner to detect and understand all the chemical changes that can occur in wine due to smoke exposed grapes.’
An untargeted approach isn’t unstructured, of course. You need to plan carefully and know what to ignore and how to focus in on what’s important.
‘It’s hard to do something like this on a case-by-case basis; you need to get the right sample set and a large sample set to really look for things and get an overall picture’, Dr Lloyd said. ‘That’s why the project is so exciting. We’ve wanted to do something like this for quite a while.’
Metabolomics has developed a great deal over the past decade, both in terms of the technique itself and the downstream data processing tools you need to deal with the type and volume of data it generates.
‘That’s what I’m directly involved with on a daily basis – running samples in an untargeted approach and developing methods in that area and developing the data processing tools to deal with it. A batch may be 50 gigabytes of data compared to a targeted batch that might be one or two gigs.’
The AWRI already has the technology for the bulk of Dr Lloyd’s project. It houses and operates the South Australian node for Metabolomics Australia.
However, she will also explore using Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) in a collaboration with researchers from the University of Queensland.
NMR metabolomics is a very different approach that can capture a different class of compounds. It is widely used in food and beverage testing and in fields such as medicine, but has not previously been used in wine in Australia. Researchers in Adelaide and Brisbane are excited to investigate its potential.
Dr Lloyd was presented with her Science and Innovation Award at the ABARES Outlook conference in Canberra on 9 March. The Science and Innovation Awards are run annually by the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources, coordinated by the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics (ABARES).
She joined the AWRI about five years after completing a Bachelor of Science degree and then a PhD supported by Wine Australia that looked at the development of apple aromas in wine. ‘I wanted to fit into an industry where I could actually apply my knowledge, and wine is such an important sector for South Australia and Australia as a whole’, she said.