José Miguel Martínez Zapater: “The wine industry needs a stronger commitment to science”

Inspiring people

01/08/2016

José Miguel Martínez Zapater (Logroño, 1958) has headed the Instituto de Ciencias de la Vid y del Vino (Vine and Wine Science Institute) since 2008.  The goal in founding the institute was to generate new knowledge and technology in Viticulture and Enology.  Even as a child, he wanted to be a scientist.

His homeland, a region known for its wines, pushed him to fulfill his dream. His research mainly focuses on mitigating the effects of climate change, developing more sustainable vinicultural approaches and combating new grapevine pests.

 

Tell us about the Instituto de Ciencias de la Vid y del Vino. What do you do and what are your goals?

The Instituto de Ciencias de la Vid y del Vino is a national research institute supported by three institutions: the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC), the University of La Rioja and the Government of La Rioja.

Its work focuses on three main objectives:

i) generating knowledge about the basic processes involved in winegrowing, grape development and ripening, and winemaking.

ii) technological development of processes and products that help make the wine industry more competitive.

iii) training research and technical staff as well as providing the industry with information.  

 

What lines of research are you currently pursuing?

We are 19 staff researchers, out of a total team of about 80 people, working on on-going research in both Viticulture and Enology.

We are concerned with cross-cutting issues that can be addressed from different fields. Specifically, ways of mitigating the effects of climate change, developing more sustainable vinicultural approaches, protecting and preserving biodiversity, combating new grapevine pests and diseases, and working on aspects pertaining to wine quality.  

In terms of viticulture, we look at research strategies such as the adoption of environmentally-friendly winegrowing systems, sensible water management—with a particular emphasis on irrigation management—the possibilities offered by plant material, and zoning studies.  Another important area is the development of tools linked to precision viticulture, based on monitoring the plant through non-invasive techniques.

Furthermore, we are deeply involved in comprehensive vineyard protection, particularly with regard to fungal infections overall, but specifically those affecting the trunk. We also work in the area of pests, mites.

In terms of enology, a significant part of our research focuses on studying fermentation processes and the micro-organisms involved, as well as on improving them to produce wines with lower alcohol and greater typicity.

Finally, in the area of enological chemistry, we are keenly interested in understanding the relation between the chemical composition of wine and the sensory impressions it generates.

 

What is the focus of viticultural and enological research on a global level?

Internationally speaking, we see cross-cutting challenges similar to those I described earlier, such as climate change, sustainable viticulture and wine production, the fight against emerging pests and diseases or those that are of particular concern to viticulture.

One working area that is given far greater priority than in Spain is the development of new grape varieties. This approach gets serious consideration in the United States as well as in wine-producing countries in Central Europe.

Developing new varieties can also help solve some of the problems caused by climate change by increasing the vine's tolerance to new climate conditions, introducing resistance to new pests, and contributing to more sustainable vineyards.

More traditional winegrowing countries tend to have regulations in place that limit possible advances in this area. However, we should be prepared for a future in which conditions are such that we have to consider replacing some of the current varieties in certain wine regions.

 

You spent a significant amount of time working as a researcher in the US. What similarities and differences do you see in how research is carried out in each country?

I think we are increasingly similar in terms of the quality of our scientific staff and available facilities. However, American society, citizens, public officials and the private sector have a great deal more confidence in science than Spanish society.  

They are convinced that knowledge solves problems, generates wealth and ensures the future. Here it seems as though we're not convinced. We lack scientific culture on all levels, and we haven't internalized the scientific method as a way of thinking.

 

How can the Spanish wine industry improve? Can your research help in this regard?

Technologically speaking, the Spanish wine industry has improved greatly over the past decades. The world, however, is changing faster and faster, and the industry has to keep evolving to adapt to social and environmental changes and meet new market demands.

There is a long winegrowing and winemaking tradition here, which makes it possible to maintain a very high level of quality.  The ability to quickly adapt to change, however, depends on scientific knowledge.

The more we know about how the viticultural system works and how it interacts with the environment or about the complexity of fermentation processes and winemaking, the better we'll be at responding to whatever challenge comes our way.

For example, thanks to several scientists who were interested in studying the chemistry involved in the sexual attraction of butterflies, we can now use sexual confusion to deal with the vine moth problem.

This is why I believe the wine industry needs a stronger commitment to science, and that this will have multiple effects in terms of innovation. With regard to research, all quality research helps generate knowledge and technological advances.

 

Climate change can affect or is already affecting the wine industry. What steps is the sector taking to mitigate its impact?

We are starting to observe the effects of climate change sporadically in certain regions and harvests. These could possibly become more regular over time. Here, as in all things in life, there is no one solution.

On the one hand, wineries can do a great deal to reduce their production-related emissions and thus ensure the lowest possible carbon footprint in winemaking.  On the other hand, the effects of climate change can be mitigated through efforts on different levels:

On the level of cultivation strategies, vine and irrigation management practices. On the genetic level, by evaluating and gradually introducing substitute rootstocks, clones and varieties that are better adapted to the new climate reality.

And on the enological level, through microbiological approaches and enological technology (yeasts that produce less alcohol or new technology).  

 

Is there a pest that might pose a large-scale threat to the industry? And what is being done about it? Is there any EU-level support?

We can never let our guard down when it comes to new pests, because given our modern-day movement of people and goods, they can spread around the world whether we want them to or not.

Earlier I mentioned the worldwide problem of trunk diseases, which is also an issue here and something we're concerned about and very actively engaged in.

In terms of emerging pests, in Italy we're currently seeing a potential risk from a strain of Xyllela fastidiosa that is affecting the olive trees in the Puglia region. So far it hasn't infected any grapevines, but it clearly shows the vulnerability of our control systems and represents a potential risk for European vineyards.

In order to control it, we have to apply European regulations very strictly, try to swiftly detect any outbreak and be completely transparent with all available information about its progress.

 

A BRIEF TASTE


Do you like wine?
I like it, it's practically the only alcoholic beverage I consume.

 

What is the best moment to enjoy a glass of wine?
I think there's a wine for every moment as long as it's shared with a friend.

 

A song to accompany a good wine.
You can probably also find a wine for every kind of music. I think classical music of the Romantic period fits perfectly with a good wine, because of the intensity of feeling and emotion (Rimski-Korsakov, Ravel, Falla, etc.)

 

A place to get lost in.
A village in a mountain valley, Ezcaray, for example.

 

If you could be reincarnated, who or what would you be?
My kids.

 

What do you do in your free time?
I like to read and walk in the mountains.

 

A flaw and a virtue.
For better or worse, I'm too responsible.

 

What did you want to be as a kid?
Curiously enough, I wanted to be a scientist, specifically a biologist.

 

And when you're older?
A good person.

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