We learnt it on the grapevine

October 8, 1999

Wine degrees are booming, particularly in Australia. But what will happen if the market becomes saturated? Julia Hinde reports

Mount Charlie and Charles Sturt might not be such familiar names as Jacob's Creek and Penfolds in the wine cabinets in Tesco, but in Australia professors are taking more than an academic interest in wine. Across the country, lecturers - from biochemists to physiologists and statisticians - are making a hobby of grape growing and wine-making, while students and universities are embracing viticulture and wine courses in unprecedented numbers.

Five years ago, wine-making and viticulture was offered at just two Australian universities. Now degree and diploma courses have sprung up at at least eight higher education institutions. Last year, 450 students started wine courses, compared with just over 100 in 1989. "The popularity of wine degrees has grown hugely," explains Peter H?j, director of the Australian Wine Research Institute and professor of wine-making at Adelaide University, which has been offering viticulture degrees since 1990. "As government has grown smaller, there has been an economically rational approach to education. Universities are having to chase the dollar. Because of all the hype about wine, it is seen as a course to which you can readily attract people."

At Adelaide, recognised as the leading Australian university for wine research, there are 200 undergraduates on viticulture and wine-marketing courses. Half are school-leavers, while many of the rest have worked in the industry and need to upgrade their skills. At Charles Sturt University in Wagga Wagga, New South Wales, 80 per cent of the 700 undergraduates enrolled on viticulture courses are already working in the industry and studying part time.

H?j dismisses the notion that the students are heavy drinkers or are attracted by the alcoholic content. "Some of them like wine, but it is more the romantic glamour associated with it. Wine is one of the few agricultural products with a press following. It is seen as respectable, with no unemployment yet and salary levels way above expectations in the early stages of a career. It is an area where Australia is punching above its weight."

But he warns that the high salaries are unlikely to last. According to Graham Jones, senior lecturer in oenology at Adelaide, the proliferation of new courses is in danger of saturating the market with graduates. There is also evidence that the Australian industry is starting to peak, with a reduction this year in demand for new cuttings.

Adelaide's courses include a two-year grounding in general science and the principles of wine-making before students specialise. "It means our students are able to make career changes into horticulture should the wine market slump," explains H?j. Students, 20 per cent of whom come from overseas - many from the UK - get to experiment and learn about wine-making on the university's Aust$3.5 million (Pounds 1.4 million) experimental vineyard. "They learn how to make wine and how to make mistakes," explains H?j, who became interested in viticulture only 12 years ago, after time as a biochemist in Denmark.

The university vineyard is also used for research purposes, though not commercial production - unlike the award-winning vineyard at Charles Sturt University, where 20,000 cases are produced annually by a separate company within the university, with any profits ploughed back into the institution.

Adelaide University and the Australian Wine Research Institute rank among the world's best for wine research and teaching, says Tim Unwin, head of geography at Royal Holloway and Bedford College, London, who teaches a course on the development of the wine industry. He also edits the Journal of Wine Research. Royal Holloway has plans to develop its own multidisciplinary wine research and teaching centre. "It is bizarre that London does not have a really good wine research and teaching institute," he says.

Also renowned for viticulture are California Davis, in the US; Montpellier, Dijon and Bordeaux in France; Geisenheim in Germany; and Stellenbosch in South Africa. "You get the best in Australia if you want to become an industry practitioner," says H?j, stressing the close relationship in Australian wine production between industry and academia. "If you want to go into the academic side of wine-making, training is equally good at Bordeaux, Davis or Montpellier," he says.

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