The SOMM Journal

December 2017 / January 2018

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54 { THE SOMM JOURNAL } DECEMBER/JANUARY 2017/2018 { scents & accountability } THERE'S STILL MUCH TO BE LEARNED REGARDING THE ROLE OF BACTERIA IN THE VINEYARD by Deborah Parker Wong WITH MILLIONS OF UNKNOWN spe- cies existing in a ton of soil, biologist Edward Osborne Wilson has called bacteria "the dark matter of the biological world." While our knowledge of the roles known bacteria play in the vineyard enables us to make delicious wine, the unknown far exceeds the understood when it comes to analyzing these soil microbiomes. According to biochemist Paco Cifuentes, who has compared studies from hundreds of vineyards, there's a distinct kingdom of organisms found only in soils farmed sustainably with organic fertilizers. When evaluating the health of a vineyard, the presence of these organisms becomes a marker for sustainability and diversity. "In a conventionally-farmed vineyard, you'll find on average 500–700 different types of microorganisms," says Cifuentes. "In sites that are farmed sustainably, we find any - where from 1,000–1,200 microorganisms, the majority of which are bacteria." This promotes an environment of checks and balances where beneficial organisms can effectively suppress harmful organisms and help prevent disease. That vast array of potentially present microorganisms includes "a dozen or so very distinctive organisms that never show up in sites that are farmed conventionally," Cifuentes adds, but the role they play in the flavor and quality of finished wine is a puzzle that's slowly being pieced together. Cifuentes imports a portfolio of organic and Biodynamic wines from several Spanish regions under the banner Whole Wine Trade, and says he sees less skepticism among producers there who want to understand their soils the same way they understand their grape varieties and root - stocks. "There's a mentality of growing both grapes and microbes in the vineyard, and an awareness that keeping the soil healthy is important part of the job," Cifuentes explains. This approach marks the distinc - tion between winemakers who want the same organoleptic characteristics from every vintage—and are, in effect, making wine in the winery—from those whose goal is to "remove the noise from the wine" and express both vintage and terroir. Although studies have shown a correla - tion between certain soils and flavors in wine, the fact that compounds found in grapes don't mimic those found in vineyard soils has sent researchers like Dr. Ignacio Belda of Biome Makers, Inc., back to the lab in pursuit of answers. Belda is researching microbial terroir with WineSeq, a DNA sequencing and machine learning–based technology, to evaluate the microbiome in vineyard soil. The ultimate goal is to identify specific chemical compounds that influence finished wine through fermentation. Belda says microorganisms exist that act along the fermentation cycle, modifying existing compounds in juice and must; they can also add other characteristics, some of The "Dark Matter" OF DIRT

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