Dr Pangzhen (Pange) Zhang started his career in a broader field, but since choosing the path into wine has taken some impressive strides in a very short time.
When he moved from Beijing to Hong Kong nearly 15 years ago, as one of the first undergraduate entry students from mainland China to be accepted into the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Pange’s interest was in agricultural and food production – an emerging issue in China at that time.
After completing his undergraduate degree, he decided to come to Australia and was accepted into the Master of Food Science program at the University of Melbourne.
He then got involved with the University’s Wine Research Group and started making connections in the sector, notably with the late Nathan Scarlett, the then technical officer with Yering Station, and Dr Mark Krstic, who became friends and mentors.
Those connections led him to the Australian Wine Research Institute (AWRI), which had space on its team researching rotundone in Shiraz, and that helped determine both his PhD project and his future research direction.
Pange’s PhD, which was partially funded through a Wine Australia scholarship and was supervised by Professor Snow Barlow, looked at the effects of environmental and viticulture management practices on rotundone accumulation in Shiraz grapes.
He presented preliminary findings to the 15th Australian Wine Industry Technical Conference in 2013, winning the prize for best student viticulture poster, and finished the entire project in May 2015 after just three years and three months of work – a short time for a complex PhD.
‘I looked at the impact of various environmental and viticultural factors on the production of rotundone in high-quality cool climate Shiraz and discovered a few techniques about how to work with wine to increase rotundone’, he said.
‘I’m now doing further work trying to relate rotundone concentration and the peppery aroma it creates with consumer preference. Research suggests that experienced drinkers with higher purchasing power have higher preference for it, so there is potential to increase profit margins for cool climate wines with this unique compound.’
That’s just one of a number of diverse projects Pange is involved with in his now full-time role as Research Fellow (Viticulture and Oenology) in the University’s School of Agriculture and Food. The common theme is the quest to maximise the quality and regionality of Australian wine.
Last year, he was presented with the Veski Sustainable Agriculture Fellowship to run a three-year project to define the distinctiveness of Victorian wine using critical quality traits and climate modelling, which has the support of Wine Victoria.
Another project funded through the Innovation Seed Fund for Horticulture Development, in collaboration with the Victorian Department of Economic Development, Jobs, Transport and Resources, is looking at the impact of key climatic change parameters, such as UV, CO2 and the elevation of temperature, on the aroma profile of grapes and wine and their antioxidant composition.
Wine Australia is funding a new PhD project for which Pange is a supervisor looking at the importance of the soil-borne microbial community to Australian terroir, which has the support of more than 20 Victorian wineries, including Mount Langi Ghiran, Best’s, Bass Philip, and Coldstream Hills.
‘The concept of microbial terroir really only emerged in 2014’, Pange said. ‘We want to know how differences in micro-organisms in the vineyard affect the quality of wine.
‘Previously when we talked about terroir we only talked about climate, soil property, the clone of the grapevine, and culture of region – only four parameters. Microbial terroir may now be the fifth.’
Pange is also actively involved in educating the next generation of researchers and is currently supervising three PhD students and many Masters students in their research.