GM Vines - turning less water into wine

October 8, 1999

When it comes to wine production, Australia is a small player in a vast global lake. But the bit player, with just 3 per cent of world wine production - one-seventh that of France or Italy - plans to make up ground with a "knowledge-based product" for the 21st century.

With one-fifth of the world's viticulture research literature emanating from down under, Australia is investing heavily in science in a bid to produce unparalleled wine at a cost to suit most palates. A levy on grape growers and wine producers, matched dollar for dollar by government, supports research through the Grape and Wine Research and Development Corporation.

Last year the corporation, a unique model in the world of wine research, invested Aust$5 million (Pounds 2 million) in wine research at Australian universities, the Australian Wine Research Institute in Adelaide and other research laboratories. This year the figure could be twice that.

Alongside computer models to help growers plant perfect vineyards and new irrigation techniques to trick vines into needing half as much water, genetically modified vines are being propagated to beat disease.

But, says Nigel Scott, of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, which shares a site with the university and the Australian Wine Research Institute in Adelaide, the prospect of GM wine at your dinner table is still a long way off.

"We are attempting to modify grape vines so they are resistant to diseases such as mildew," explains Scott. "At the moment chemicals are used, but for environmental and cost reasons and in order to reduce residues in wine, the ambition is to limit their usage."

A number of US relatives of grape vines, which are unsuitable for wine-making, are resistant to mildew. Researchers at CSIRO, working in conjunction with French scientists, are trying to identify these resistant genes. CSIRO scientists already have some transgenic vines in greenhouses. These have been altered in an attempt to turn off the gene that leads to browning in dried fruit. The oldest of these gene-altered vines is aged three years and is unlikely to produce many grapes for at least another 18 months.

"It is highly unlikely there could be commercial GM wine for at least seven to ten years," Scott explains. "And then it's up to the consumer."

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