Can microbes help turn a $10 wine bottle into a $100 wine bottle? UWA researchers think so.

At a glance:

  • Studies suggest link between soil microbes and wine quality
  • Vineyard conditions bestow each wine its unique properties
  • UWA scientists discover what it takes to make an expensive drop

Did you know the soil underneath your feet is alive? A single gram of soil can host, on average, around 10 billion bacterial cells representing more than 10,000 microbial species. And it is not just the soil: microbes live all over plants, in the roots, stems, leaves and fruits.

In recent years, these tiny inhabitants have revealed themselves as important players in a myriad of processes, from plant health and productivity, to greenhouse gas regulation, potentially influencing climate change.

Producing consistently good wine with the help of microbes

Now, researchers at The University of Western Australia (UWA) are asking if microbes can help you craft a better wine. Working alongside winemaker Warwick Mathews, from Margaret River’s After Hours Wine, they are searching for the holy grail of winemaking: what is the secret of a wine’s ‘terroir’?

The ‘terroir’ of a wine is a tricky concept. It can be briefly defined as the natural environment where a wine is produced. The combination of climatic, geological and topographical properties of a vineyard that bestow each wine with unique properties.

But nailing down what really makes up the ‘terroir’ has been elusive. Is it mostly the chemical quality of the soil? Or is it climate? Or perhaps the microbes living within the soil or plant?

Senior Principal Research Fellow Professor Andy Whiteley, Assistant Professor Matthias Leopold and Research Assistant Professor Deepak Kumaresan, are tackling this very question directly at its source.

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Image: Heatmap overlaid on After Hours vineyards, showing distribution of soil microbes of the Proteobacteria group. Section in red represent areas rich in these microorganisms.

Unearthing the best climatic, geological and topographical properties of a vineyard

The team are analysing 375 grapevines from Mathews’ vineyard. Some of the plants come from a patch that consistently produces high quality wine, says Mathews, whereas others come from a patch that produce a wine of lesser quality. “It has so far been a mystery why some plants in the vineyard consistently produce a great wine, while others from different patch not far away produce something different,” he adds.

Whiteley thinks the key is to look into the concept of terroir at a microscopic scale, disentangling the biological, physical and chemical factors that might be influencing wine quality. The approach taken in this project is unique, as thus far no previous study has taken into account all these factors to understand the concept of a wine’s ‘terroir’.

So far, the UWA team have analysed the chemical properties and the microbes living in the soil of the plants from different quality patches and now plan to look at the microbial make-up of these plants.

Preliminary results show that for some groups of bacteria, such as Proteobacteria, there are clear differences in their distribution across the vineyard, and even between patches of high and low quality plants.

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Image: The vineyard where UWA scientists are undertaking research to determine the factors that could make the perfect wine.