A three-year research project to develop water efficiencies for use in growing wine grapes is being funded by the Southern Interior Development Initiative Trust.
UBC-O chemistry researcher Susan Murch has received $150,000 to field test new rootstocks created in the lab and to test, market and distribute a bio-marker detection tool to identify the presence of specific characteristic proteins of vine water stress. That would reduce the need for preventive irrigation.
Both would conserve water in the Okanagan’s dry climate.
Murch came to UBC-O in 2005 from the University of Guelph where she had worked in plant chemistry for the previous 20 years. She is the Canada Research Chair in Natural Products Chemistry.
Her particular interest is in plant growth regulation and secondary metabolism, and that’s where the flavour compounds in wine grapes develop.
“Interesting flavours come from stressed plants, but it’s a fine line how much you can stress the plant,” she explains.
In some wine regions of the world, it’s clearer where that fine line is than in the Okanagan Valley.
She says she’s found this valley particularly interesting because there are so many different growing conditions, due to factors such as soil type and microclimates, throughout the valley.
As a precursor to this project, she began studying wine grape rootstocks here five or six years ago, beginning with plants from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency which are in common use in the Okanagan.
She then talked to growers from one end of the valley to the other about which rootstocks they are using and conducted an informal survey on what their needs are, their concerns, what is working well for them and why they’ve made the choices they have.
None of the rootstocks commonly used here now are drought tolerant, yet there is a finite amount of water available and reducing water would be beneficial to growers, she notes.
She then created dozens of new rootstocks in the lab, using somatic hybridization, a type of tissue culture.
These have been tested in the lab, under conditions meant to replicate drought, with a sandy-textured artificial soil that helps to keep water from the roots, but under conditions where adequate light and nutrition are provided, she explains.
The current project called Biotechnology Resources for Improving Water Use Efficiency in Vineyards, will begin with testing in working vineyards this spring, moving to full-scale field trials in two local vineyards next year, including Summerhill Pyramid Estate Winery.
At first a range of grape varietals will be grown on the rootstocks to see which work best with which varietals.
After three years, the flavour characteristics will be compared to those varietals grown on the more-common rootstocks in the valley.
During growth, the biomass produced on the new rootstocks will be compared to that grown on the more-common valley rootstocks as well as the disease resistance and cold susceptibility.
The amount of water that might be able to be conserved using the new rootstocks will vary depending on the vineyard, its soil type, microclimate and management.
However, the research is of interest in other parts of the world as well as here in B.C., notes Murch.
This project and the ones preceding it have involved students from the university conducting research projects.
This is a particularly appropriate venue for this type of work because the university is actually sending its students out into a valley that’s currently recruiting from all areas of the world for the rapidly-growing wine industry, she points out.