Wine is good for the soul and a great way to end a long day, but it’s easy to forget that there is a long process needed to create the delicious beverage.
Cain Hickey, a Ph.D. student in the Department of Horticulture working at Tech’s Alson H. Smith Jr. Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Winchester, Va., is examining the science behind two popular Virginia wines and how different exposures can change the flavors and aromas.
“The whole goal of the project is to better understand how fruit exposure relates to changes in compounds in the grapes that are responsible for the important sensory components of wine,” Hickey said.
Hickey hopes to accomplish this by soliciting the opinions of the general public.
In order to get the best results, the study is requiring that participants drink the wine at least once a week.
The two varieties being tested are Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot, which are two widely planted grapes and wines consumed in Virginia.
Participants will be asked several questions about the wines that will help determine preferences between the two and will aid in developing canopy management strategies for grape growers.
“If there is (a preference) then we can start giving out recommendations for growers in Virginia as to how much they should expose their grapes and if it should be the same in different varieties based on the sensory analysis of the wine,” Hickey said.
However, the researchers encourage more experienced wine drinkers to participate in the study.
“I think back to when I was 21 and in college; I don’t think I would be a fair consumer of wine,” Hickey said.
According to Tony Wolf, Virginia Tech professor of viticulture and Hickey’s Ph.D. advisor, if an inexperienced wine drinker who has never had a dry wine before comes into the study, they will not be able to fully experience the flavors.
“It’s a measure of whether the person has the pallet, the tasting acumen to be able to judge these wines,” Wolf said.
Coming into the study, Hickey and Wolf knew they wanted to work with Bordeaux reds and wanted to pick varieties that have not been tested frequently in the past.
“It was a natural question to say ‘let’s see what the profiles look like in these two varieties’ as sort of new material and research that is new and not just repeating what other people have done,” Wolf said.
Since there has not been much research with the two wines, Hickey and his team are trying to understand the compounds in the grapes, how they affect the wine and if consumers prefer the change.
The researchers hope the preference test determines if the participants notice the aroma and color changes that are the result of compound changes.
“None of these compounds are a silver bullet,” Hickey said. “There are hundreds of compounds in a grape that can impart all these sensory aspects.”
In order to change the compounds, the team used some unconventional methods.
“The treatments themselves were the different timing or magnitude of fruit exposure,” said Hickey. “We also did something that was very unconventional and we pulled leaves very early in the season before bloom.”
Even though Hickey works on the grape side of wine, he believes it’s important to follow through on the winemaking process.
“The questions that growers and people are going to have in the industry is how does it affect the wines,” Hickey said. “We take it all the way through the winemaking phase because we think it’s good science.”
Continuing on with the winemaking process is a good thing, considering grapes are a big component in wine.
John Boyer, a professor at Tech that teaches the “Geography of Wine” class, likes to use the term “terroir” to describe a finished wine.
“The biggest thing that affects the finished wine is what grape you start with,” Boyer said.
As for what they expect from the results, the team hopes to make some small changes.
“We are going to see very small, very subtle changes, but measurable and to some extent, if they are consistent with the rest of our canopy management goals, if they go hand-in-hand with what we are trying to do, that’s good,” Wolf said.
The researchers will hold a consumer preference test on April 22 and 23, between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. in the Department of Food Science and Technology’s Sensory Lab.
Each test will take 20 to 30 minutes and consumers 21 and over can participate in both days’ tests.