Research, science, and innovation underpin the sustainability and development of vine growing and wine production – which is why most serious wine growing regions of the world have some form of R&D function. Vineyard speaks to Dr Alistair Nesbitt, Geoff Taylor and Dr Greg Dunn, key contributors to some of the important cross-industry projects ensuring our resilience for a successful future.

“The value of research within the wine production sector is immense,” commented Dr Alistair Nesbitt, newly appointed Chair of the WineGB R&D Management Advisory Committee and Vinescapes Ltd CEO. “Millions and millions are spent globally each year on research that benefits the wine sector. Alongside commercial product development, most significant wine producing regions of the world have dedicated research bodies that drive the advancement of the sector through improved wine and grape quality, keeping the industry competitive and steadily growing – as well as raising the global awareness of a region’s wines. For the UK wine production sector to have research benefits it needs functions of knowledge exchange and research delivery,” Alistair added.

UK expertise 

“In the UK we are very fortunate to have world class experts and scientists in areas relevant to viticulture, wine production, and wine marketing, based in dedicated research centres such as NIAB EMR, Colleges such as Plumpton College, and Universities such as Exeter, Sussex and East Anglia,” explained Alistair. “Part of my role as Chair of WineGB’s Research & Development group is to leverage that expertise to the benefit of the sector.”

At NIAB EMR, the horticultural research institute at East Malling, the viticulture research is currently being driven by the Viticulture R&D Consortium, which is Chaired by Geoff Taylor and formed of six UK vineyards. 

“I believe very strongly in research and how it will bring knowledge to the industry to help its future,” commented Geoff. “However, research requires finance and commitment from key stakeholders – however modest– in order to attract further funding, resources and collaboration from larger institutes,” Geoff added. 

“A new appointment to lead the viticulture research at NIAB EMR will be announced soon, and this will build upon the considerable expertise held by the research teams across the well-established horticulture sector. Much of the ongoing work is very relevant to viticulture, including dedicated projects such as the weed management work that is building results over many years.

“The consortium is keen to welcome likeminded vineyard businesses who are prepared to support, and benefit from, research,” added Geoff.

At Plumpton College, Dr Greg Dunn, Head of Wine, sees research as critical for the industry’s success. “In the UK we need to secure sustainable yields and, where necessary, reduce the costs of production. This research is both specific and broad and includes rootstock and scions, site interaction, appropriate pruning and trellising, disease management, soil management, mechanisation and more.

 “Research is also important to ensure we hit compositional targets in the vineyard and maximise the potential of fruit in the winery. Again, this research is specific and broad. Research is also needed to ensure we optimise the potential of fruit in winemaking and manage fruit in the winery during difficult seasons,” added Greg. 

“We are fortunate at Plumpton College to have research focussed staff with expertise across many highly relevant areas including, grapevine physiology, winemaking, microbiology, sensory science, consumer perception, market analysis, as well as sustainable management of vineyard soils,” commented Greg. 

Research projects

“Most producers and sector bodies engage in some form of research during the course of their businesses,” commented Alistair, “maybe its trialling a new clone, testing different pruning methods, using alternative soil management techniques, conducting wine yeast trials, using different equipment, or investigating new marketing avenues – or maybe they engage professional researchers to solve a problem or develop a new solution. Whatever form of research they engage in it’s normally done with an aim of improving efficiency, quality or to give them a commercial advantage,” Alistair added. 

Alistair has been involved in professional research since 2014 when he was undertaking his PhD, based at the University of East Anglia, into the impact of climate change on viticulture. Alistair is now CEO of Vinescapes Ltd and offers research driven advice and support to the industry. “At any one time, my team and I are working on three or four professional research projects, in the UK and abroad,” explained Alistair. “Professional research is a highly skilled and difficult area to operate in, where specialist knowledge, ability, infrastructure and of course funding all need to align. However, testing ideas, finding new knowledge, developing different products, unlocking potential, changing the status quo, and making things better are what we are passionate about,” Alistair added. 

“Translating that to a sector level is, for me personally, a new and exciting challenge so I am pleased to be Chair of the WineGB R&D group,” commented Alistair. “I have recruited new committee members from a wide range of research orientated disciplines and our remit is to identify the industry’s research needs – those that will have a lasting and tangible impact on the development of the sector. We are tasked with linking those research needs with an engaged research sector and driving delivery of a research portfolio. 

“Critically we need to establish a research funding framework, and of course we must make sure that research outcomes are communicated to the benefit of our sector. We want a world class research programme to support the sustainable production of world class wines from the UK. With sector engagement and buy-in, WineGB can develop a research strategy and framework that will both underpin and guide investment for sustainable world class wine production in the near future,” said Alistair. 

CREWS-UK project planning for a resilient future

One of Alistair’s current research projects is Climate Resilience in the UK Wine Sector (CREWS-UK), and he will be presenting some results from this project at the Vineyard & Winery show in November – ahead of the publication of the project’s outcomes. “The project is a collaboration between climatologists, wine sector specialists and social scientists from the Grantham Research Institute and the University of East Anglia. It will provide information on how climate change will affect the wine production sector in the future. This will inform businesses in order to support their decision-making and investment, and it will help producers adapt and build resilience – one example is improved yield consistency,” commented Alistair. 

Current research projects at Plumpton College:

  • Sustainable vineyard management, including vineyard floor management and soil health
  • Maintaining yield, including bud dissection, clonal comparisons, pruning systems, and delayed pruning
  • Manipulating fruit composition, for example, using leaf stripping
  • Improving malolactic fermentation
  • Consumer sensory perception of UK sparkling wine
  • Consumer sensory perception of ‘sustainably produced’ wines
  • Making and evaluating wine from PIWI varieties.

Over the next six months WineGB R&D group will:

  • Review existing UK-based viticulture and wine production related research activities to establish an understanding of what is taking place and where
  • Engage with Regional WineGB and other WineGB Management Advisory Committee groups to uncover the core research needs of the sector 
  • Complete a sector wide research strategy
  • Develop a funding roadmap for a sustainable research approach
  • Hold the first WineGB Research & Innovation conference in late 2022, to bring together UK vintners and wine producers, researchers, innovators, and potential funding partners. 

CREWS-UK project: