Tiniest winery at work on UBC-O campus

UBCO researcher Cedric Saucier swirls a glass of red wine while this year
UBCO researcher Cedric Saucier swirls a glass of red wine while this year's vintage works away on the lab bench, at the valley's tiniest winery
— image credit: judie Steeves/Capital News

It’s probably the smallest winery in B.C.

But its goal is not to make the best wine in the province, but to learn about what different factors influence wine quality during the process of growing the grapes and making it.

The first batch of wine to be made—all by hand—at the UBCO campus in Kelowna was in 2010, when 72 half-bottles were made by associate professor Cedric Saucier and his staff at the new enology lab in the new Fipke Building.

More was fermented in the lab last fall, clearly illustrating the differences in colour that come from using more or less nitrogen to fertilize the grape vines during the season.

One of the theories he is testing involves whether using as little water and fertilizer as possible in growing the grapes impacts the quality of the resulting wines. They’re finding that—quite contrary from growing most other crops—deprivation has a positive influence on flavour.

Saucier moved to the Okanagan from a post at the University of Bordeaux in France, where he was conducting research into the grape tannins which give wine its colour and taste, and teaching enology.

 The move here in 2009 was an opportunity for him to develop some international experience; to go to a new wine region and see how he could help it develop. It was the reputation of UBC that brought him here and the fact that the campus was in a wine region, he says.

He also had the opportunity to start and equip his own wine laboratory, as the Fipke Building was under construction at the time. He has now begun the first enology program at a university in B.C.

About a third of his time is spent on research, another third teaching and a third on administration, as he is currently acting head of chemistry at the university.

The research is funded in part by the B.C. Wine Grape Council and in part by the federal agriculture ministry and includes research into the phenolic compounds in grapes and wine; the physical and chemical evolution of wines during aging and the influence of oak; the interaction of phenolic compounds with other taste or aroma active substances such as proteins or pyrazines; and ripening markers and interactions with Botrytis cinerea.

The balance of sugar and acid in grapes are critical to wine flavours, he adds.

As well, technology that will allow better evaluation and management of the polyphenol content of wines can lead to an increase in both the nutritional and sensory qualities of the wines, and thus their value.

In the Okanagan, he says the grapes generally have good sugars.

But, it’s a matter of determining a winemaker’s style, with soil, climate and ripeness all playing a role in carrying out that style. All of them vary in the different micro-climates and soil regions of the valley.

Taking measurements at harvest time to better define the qualities of the grape helps to determine the style of the wine, but a longer maceration period and other measures play a role as well.

At present, though, there’s no really accurate measure for use in the field. He is hopeful he can find some new tools to help growers and winemakers which will help with that, using some of the molecular markers he is working to identify.

“It might be a marker of phenolic or aromatic ripeness. But it’s critical, because within a short time you can lose that perfect balance. It’s always a balancing act, when to pick,” he adds.

You can make some adjustments when you’re making the wine to overcome imperfections, but the better the grapes you pick, the more you have to work with.

He’s working to find chemical markers that will help winemakers know where the grapes are in the process; when maceration should stop, for instance.

Another study he’s working on includes an analysis of the tannins in the seeds and the skin of the individual berries. As the seeds become brown, they are riper, and they become crunchier as well, he notes.

He would like to uncover a chemical marker to take some of the intuition out of deciding ripeness.

Nitrogen also has an impact on ripeness, particularly tannins. Generally, the Okanagan has sandy soils so fertilizing is necessary, but it’s important to use as little as possible so lush green growth is not encouraged, but the grapes grow, he explains.

He’s currently analyzing grapes from two sites where different amounts of nitrogen have been applied, to discover what results in more phenolics and colour, and it appears that there’s better colour with a lower use of nitrogen.

The Okanagan’s grapes and wines are already world class, he says, and there are fewer pests and diseases than in Bordeaux.

He believes the next step the wine industry here must take is to select the best varieties and concentrate on them to achieve both higher quality and price.

It may not be easy, but he feels strongly that it’s important to create an image for Okanagan wines—that varietal choices should be narrowed down to those which do the best here, instead of trying to grow every grape varietal known.

Saucier began drinking wine in his teens at every family meal and admits he has tried some of the great wines of France. By comparison he says he has tried some B.C. wins that are very good.

“Based on what I’ve tasted, the Okanagan should concentrate on growing merlot, pinot noir and cabernet franc,” he says.

In whites, he feels the chardonnay does exceptionally well here, along with gewurztraminer and riesling. Pinot gris, which is one of the most-planted grapes, he feels could do well with more concentrated flavours.

Of course, different parts of the valley are different too, and soil has an affect on phenolics.

The work he is doing now comes at a critical point in the evolution of the industry in this valley, so he is hopeful he will have results soon which can be helpful in achieving the next stage in the industry’s growth.



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