Genetically Designed Wine

November 1, 2007

Winemaking is 90 percent science, 10 percent art," says Hennie van Vuuren. He's showing off UBC's Wine Research Centre, with its gene-array scanners and gas-and-liquid chromatographs linked to mass spectrometers. The machines hum away, analyzing a 1996 Château Margaux Premier Grand Cru Classé.

"I've always been involved in some sort of alcoholic beverage research," says the soft-spoken 61-year-old microbiologist, who was finishing a PhD on the microbiology of beer brewing at the State University of Ghent in Belgium, in 1976, when a 1970 Armand Rousseau Chambertin-Clos de Bèze changed his life: "It just blew my mind."

He returned to his hometown in Stellenbosch, one of South Africa's top wine-growing regions, to head up the local university's department of microbiology. In 1997, he accepted a position at Brock University, in Ontario's Niagara region, founding their Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute. In July 1999, he accepted a research chair at UBC, and launched a West Coast version of the Brock centre with the support of government grants, the university, and six B.C. wineries anxious to improve their wines through scientific research. Three faculty and 29 graduate students and researchers are now at work, focussing on three areas:the genomics of wine yeasts, the grape vine, and how B.C. wines age.

Van Vuuren has already developed two genetically modified yeasts: one does away with the bioamines in wine that cause headaches; the other reduces the ethyl carbamate, a suspected carcinogen formed during fermentation. His current mission: draw out the terroir of B.C. wines. "They've come a long way," he says, "but they still don't fully reflect a sense of place." Wines from Chablis, Burgundy, or Marlborough in New Zealand, he says, all betray their provenance at a sip. Why B.C. wines lack that defining quality is a mystery he hopes to solve.

His hypothesis-that wines can be reduced to chemical equations-is controversial. David Scholefield, a local wine expert, notes that technological manipulations like selected yeast strains run counter to one of the big trends in wine production right now, biodynamic farming. "It's a very primitive kind of winemaking," he says, "where the vineyard is a closed system and you use all the compost and materials from the local environment." Top-quality producers like Domaine de la Romanee Conti, Zind-Humbrecht, and B.C.'s Blue Mountain have all adopted the approach. "Some winemakers argue that the more we apply science to wine, the more it's diminished."

Van Vuuren heads down to the centre's 4,000-bottle wine library. (Here the aesthetic is old-world cellar; a Murano glass chandelier hangs over black marble counters and oak cabinetry.) The bottles are a mishmash of young B.C. wines and world-class international vintages donated by local connoisseurs. The B.C. wines are part of an ongoing aging study that monitors the taste and chemical fingerprint of 20 provincial wineries-including Mission Hill, Poplar Grove, and Burrowing Owl-over 24 years. Little is known about the aging potential of B.C. wines: ­in the early 1980s the province only had 13 wineries, compared to 138 today. The study will help viticulturists understand which microclimates are best for which varietals in terms of aging potential. It also pits B.C. wines against those iconic $3,000 bottles to see where the molecular differences lie.

He pauses by a glass case, where empty bottles of marquee wines are lined up like trophies. "This wine," he says, pointing to a dusty 1961 Château Lafite Rothschild, "made a graduate student who was going to do medicine change to winemaking. He is now a winemaker in France."

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