GRAND traditions can leave a country resting on its laurels rather than competing at the cutting edge of research. Until recently, France was no exception where its heritage as a country of fine wines was concerned.
But that began to change when a tough new law on alcohol put the wine industry on the defensive. The Loi Evin banned television advertising, imposed health warnings and even cut the number of signposts to French vineyards.
Evelyne Bernard, a cardiologist at Bordeaux University, said: "The Loi Evin definitely spurred research into the positive health aspect of wine. After five years of projects and conferences, it is becoming a major focus of research.
Jean Bezard, emeritus professor at the University of Burgundy in Dijon, said: "France relied too long on tradition and its research is less developed than the United States. The US has done a huge amount of oenological research and in 20 years, the quality of American wines has really caught up."
Professor Bezard's own focus as a biologist has been to identify the effects of a particular aromatic compound, resveratrol, found in some red wines on the cardio-vascular system. Resveratrol works as an antioxidant and natural hypocoagulant - processes which keep the blood flowing smoothly through unclogged arteries. Professor Bezard believes research could also reveal similar beneficial effects on the processes of ageing and of cancerisation.
"It would also be very interesting to work on wine's effect in reducing stress. Stress plays a major role in cardio-vascular diseases. One would have to find biological markers for it," said Professor Bezard.
As with oenological research, US work on the health aspect has also been one step ahead, spurred on by the book The French Paradox, which showed that the wine-drinking, fatty-food eating Perigordians lived long, healthy lives. "There is a French paradox. The correlation between wine consumption and heart attacks is striking," noted Professor Bezard.
Although his unit in Dijon was one of the first to synthesise resveratrol, lack of cash halted the programme for a year and the compound is now produced by a US laboratory. Another obstacle to French research is the clannish approach of different wine-producing regions.
"Because resveratrol is found in red Burgundies and Bordeaux, but not in other French red wines, we meet a lot of opposition and cannot get national funding," said Professor Bezard.
In both the Bordeaux and Burgundy regions, the local wine boards, which collect levies, and the regional councils, are the main funders of wine research. Research is involving agronomists with medical researchers, oenologists and molecular biologists.
Bordeaux University houses France's biggest wine research centre. Its faculty of oenology has six research laboratories. Research director Denis Dubourdieu studies the biochemistry of aromas and aroma stability.
He has done pioneering work on the aromas of Sauvignon, one of the three vines used for the distinctive sweet white Sauternes, detecting amino acids in the grapes which are the precursors of the aromas released during fermentation.
"Wine research has proceeded backwards from stabilising the wine in the bottle, to ensuring no alterations occurred during bottling, to vinification. Now, the future of wine research lies in identifying the wine potential of the grape," he explained.
Working in Dr Dubourdieu's laboratory, Philippe Darriet devoted his PhD to Sauvignon aromas. For all the science involved, the work cannot be done without a sensitive nose.
"The sense of smell is so sensitive, it catches aromas which electronic detectors cannot identify because they are present as an infinitesimal trace," he noted. Typically, a litre of the best Chteau Margaux, once concentrated, will be used to catch just three seconds of aroma when run through a gas chromatograph. After years of practice, Dr Darriet can keep sniffing for 30 minutes, to build up an aromagramme of the different smells released for just a few seconds, one after another.
Fellow researcher Isabelle Masneuf did her PhD on Sauvignon yeasts, identifying which of the naturally occurring yeast strains produce the best Sauvignon aroma. With this work, the aim would be to commercialise the best yeast strains, enabling wine producers to make wines with a more typical Sauvignon flavour.
Such an innovation, which would change the age-old habit of leaving naturally occurring yeasts to do their work, might be hard to get across to traditional wine producers. But Dr Dubourdieu, who runs his own family vineyard in the Sauternes region, is confident that research findings will be taken up.
"Bordeaux is one of the first places in the world where oenologists have played a guiding role in translating research into practical applications," he said. "Research is needed increasingly to back up traditional know-how.
Producers forget why they do something and can easily drop a habit, so it is important for science to prove the usefulness of any given practice," he explained.
A few years ago, producers nearly abandoned the habit of keeping white wines on lees for some time. Research showed the process stabilised the wines. "There is nothing more satisfying than to see empiricism clarified by science," said Dr Dubourdieu.
Empiricism is increasingly bolstered by science in French vineyards, as the universities of the wine-producing areas turn out more wine professionals.
Bordeaux University's masters-level oenology diploma course produces around 40 graduates a year. The most talented become private consultants, others buyers and others masters of cellars at the vineyards. "That is totally new, the job used to be handed down within families," said Dr Dubourdieu.
There is also a strong demand for French graduates abroad, often as buyers. At the pinnacle of the profession are the flying wine- makers who follow grape-harvest time around the globe and "sign" the wine in famous vineyards - a flying advertisement for The French Paradox.