Today’s winemakers, like other food and beverage producers, are working in unusual and changing times. Paradigms have shifted in the COVID-19 era, where booming online selling channels and the limited availability of raw materials is prompting winemakers to adapt their business models to the realities of fast-changing consumer demands.
In several regions, including North and South America, China, and parts of Eastern Europe, unfavorable weather patterns and natural disasters have either limited grape harvests or changed the characteristics of the grapes, placing increasing importance on the testing of grapes and other raw materials. Further, the pandemic has spurred a major shift in consumer behavior toward online buying channels as restaurants temporarily closed to prevent the spread of the virus. Given large selections online versus what is available in most standard brick-and-mortar establishments, consumers are also exerting more buying power and demanding more transparency and quality.
To remain competitive, many wineries are starting to leverage more advanced analytical testing to supplement traditional sensory evaluations and basic testing, helping to ensure product consistency and reduce losses tied to poor product and raw material quality. They also aim to use the collected data as a competitive advantage. Although testing has played an important role at large wineries for decades, many small to mid-sized wineries, often citing budgetary concerns or gaps in technical proficiency, have not yet embraced the potential that analytical testing offers. Recent advances in Fourier transform infrared (FT-IR) spectroscopy instrumentation can help address these challenges, not only by drastically reducing the complexity of testing procedures, but also by reducing the upfront investment required to purchase instrumentation, making advanced yet easy-to-use testing more attainable to wineries of any size.
FT-IR Spectroscopy for Winemakers
FT-IR instrumentation uses spectroscopic imaging to essentially map, or “fingerprint,” a sample by creating an infrared spectrum of the absorption or emission of components in the sample across a number of wavelengths. Spectral images, such as those shown in Figure 1, are then compared to a library of known components to both identify and quantify compounds in the sample. Modern FT-IR instruments can produce results in less than a minute and are small enough to transport in the trunk of a small sedan, allowing for agility and portability throughout the winemaking process.
The benefits of onsite FT-IR testing are numerous and include fast results, ease of use, and a low cost of operation, allowing winemakers to monitor their process by measuring critical parameters throughout vinification, thus enabling more comprehensive process control. This provides a more beneficial approach than conducting single data-point measurement, as it helps to ensure full process and input control and avoids product loss if processes fall out of specification before or after isolated test points. As such, it is recommended that testing occur throughout the winemaking process, including the analysis of grapes at intake, must under fermentation, and the finished product after fermentation.
Grape and Must Testing
Testing grapes throughout the growing process and at harvest using an FT-IR ensures product soundness, optimal grape maturity, and fair pricing. Deciding when to harvest grapes has often been more of an art, with harvesters and wineries relying on decades of experience, skill, and a “gut feel.” Supplementing this human knowledge with actionable data enables an optimal blend of experience and science. Striking the correct balance between phenolic and physiological maturity is key and, taking into account the potential impacts of unfavorable climate changes, the importance of testing grapes to determine harvest dates has become increasingly important.