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Rhone Rangers Ride Again, Wine Cruise, Green Times

Posted by | October 27, 2011

Rhone Rangers Ride Again

Some of wine drinkers’ favorite grape varieties are originally from the Rhône River Valley of France. Now, though, Syrah, Grenache, Viognier and a handful of other varieties are grown in vineyards all over the world, including Washington state. That’s why a U.S.-based organization, Rhone Rangers, recently helped fund the research of four WSU graduate students working on issues related to Rhône varieties.

Katherine Wang
Katherine Wang

Katherine Wang, a master’s student at WSU Tri-Cities, is studying drought resistance in Grenache. Grenache has long been an economically important variety in California, where it has been prized for its ability to stand up to the Central Valley’s hot, dry summers. In Washington, Grenache was one of the first premium varietals to be grown in the Yakima Valley. More recently, Grenache has become a key element in blends modeled on those produced in France’s Châteauneuf-de-Pape region.

Wang plans to compare anatomical and physiological features of drought-stressed Grenache vines with those found in Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel. “With global competition for water increasing,” Wang said, “it is important to understand the adaptive mechanisms in different grape varieties in order to insure the sustainability of viticulture under challenging conditions.”

Yun Zhang
Yun Zhang

At WSU’s research center in Prosser, doctoral student Yun Zhang is continuing her investigation of the biophysics of water movement in grapevines. For her Rhone Ranger project, which the organization has helped fund since 2010, Zhang is focusing on late-season berry shriveling in Syrah. Her work on this and related issues is also funded by the USDA Northwest Center for Small Fruits Research.

Zhang estimates that growers can lose up to $400 per acre due to weight loss from shriveling. Regarding economic losses, Zhang said, “That’s the known issue. What is not known is the effect of shriveling on wine quality. And we don’t know if shriveling can be prevented or reduced. With this study, we’ll gain a better understanding of how and when berries utilize and transport water. More crucially, we should be able to give growers more suggestions regarding how to fine tune irrigation depending on environmental conditions – knowledge that will enable them to optimize yield and maximize fruit quality.”

Eileen Harbertson
Eileen Harbertson

Eileen Harbertson, a master’s student also based at WSU’s Prosser research center, is investigating a new way to control grapevine vigor. Ideally, grapevines would produce a certain amount of green foliage – and then stop sprouting leaves in order to focus their resources on fruit development. Unfortunately for the fruit, a vine’s capacity for outgrowth is enormous, and ironically pruning back excess growth causes a hormonal cascade that generates even more new shoots. “It can be a Herculean labor to keep a high-capacity vine focused on ripening its fruit,” Harbertson said. Viticulturists plan carefully to constrain vine vigor, limiting water through controlled irrigation, matching site to a specific variety and trellis type but, Harbertson pointed out, most aspects of vineyard infrastructure are capital intensive and managers are reluctant to change things once they are in the ground.

Instead, Harbertson is researching the possibility of using a naturally occurring plant hormone called strigolactone to control vigor. “My ongoing and future work includes testing strigolactone in combination with various pruning regimes in order to understand what the most effective, practical and economically viable protocol will be,” Harbertson said. “Along the way, I’m going to optimize certain analytical methods that will tell us how much strigolactone is in these plants naturally, as well as where the minimum threshold for effective vigor control lies.”

Kathie Nicholson
Kathie Nicholson

In Pullman, Ph.D. student Kathie Nicholson is investigating the possibility of detecting genetic differences in varietals and clones within those varieties. “Currently,” Nicholson said, “the identification of varieties relies primarily on ampelography. Ampelography involves the visual assessment of morphological features of the vine, primarily leaves, but also assesses shoots, inflorescences, clusters, and berries. Clonal identification is dependent on precise record keeping and the faith that each cutting from a particular clone is properly labeled and tracked. With ampelography, a lot is left to the subjective interpretation of plant features, while with cloning there is always the possibility of record-keeping errors or of plant material getting switched around. So we really need a reliable method for identifying varieties and their clones.”

Nicholson has her work cut out for her. Grape varieties have been successfully distinguished using modern DNA analysis, but the differences among clones are much more subtle, meaning she will have to break new ground to develop a test that can detect minute molecular differences. Her work is no mere academic exercise, though. As part of her recently completed master’s work, Nicholson surveyed both winemakers and consumers in order to get a picture of how each group ranks their awareness and importance of clones. Both winemakers and wine drinkers are interested in clonal varieties. Nicholson suspects that, just as differentiation of variety and vineyard have helped wineries market the difference of their product from others, clonal varieties will offer consumers new choices and marketers new leverage to expand an already rapidly growing industry.

By Brian Clark

A previous recipient of a Rhone Ranger research scholarship is the subject of a Voice of the Vine story here: http://bit.ly/9qPPEV and a video here: http://bit.ly/cVhulR.

Yun Zhang and Eileen Harbertson are both graduates students mentored by WSU Chateau Ste. Michelle Distinguished Professor of Viticulture, Markus Keller. Learn more about research in Keller’s lab at http://bit.ly/kellervit. Read a Voice of the Vine article about research in Keller’s lab on the biophysics of water use in grapevines: http://bit.ly/n5QC8Z.

Kathleen Wang is a graduate student working with viticulturist and assistant professor Bhaskar Bondada at WSU Tri-Cities. Learn more about Bondada’s work at http://bit.ly/uixMeL.

Kathie Nicholson is a graduate student working under the mentorship of horticultural genomicist Amit Dhingra. Learn more about research in Dhingra’s lab at http://bit.ly/sCRADO.

WSU Cougars Mediterranean Cruise

Cruise the Mediterranean with fellow Cougars, in luxury.
Cruise the Mediterranean with fellow Cougars, in luxury.

Join world-renowned WSU Viticulture and Enology Director Thomas Henick-Kling, CAHNRS Dean Daniel Bernardo ‘85, and Chateau Ste. Michelle winemaker Bob Bertheau and chef John Sarich as they sail the Mediterranean on a private Cougar-chartered cruise, May 28 – June 2, 2012. Embark from Nice, France, with calls at Calvi, Portofino, Livorno, Portoferraio and Rome.

Special pricing for the first 42 cabins start at $2,450 pp. Proceeds will benefit the WSU Viticulture and Enology program.

WSU Cougars Cruise pricing includes:

  • All meals and snacks aboard ship
  • Special gourmet wine tasting dinners prepared by our celebrity chef
  • Featured wines served all day and evening throughout the cruise
  • Special WSU Cougars wine tasting events
  • Winemaker seminars
  • Educational seminars on wine, food, and ports of call
  • Special parties aboard ship
  • Two special WSU cocktail parties with complimentary drinks and appetizers
  • Live entertainment every night
  • 24-hour room service
  • Water sports at the Windsurf marina, including water skiing, sailing, and kayaking (weather permitting)
  • Airport transfers in Nice and Rome

Learn more at http://bit.ly/cruisewine.

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Organic wine grapes.
Organic wine grapes.

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