25 January, 2020

Dr. Christine Böttcher: fighting climate change in Aussie wine

Dr. Christine Böttcher: fighting climate change in Aussie wine

Dr. Christine Böttcher, winner of Researcher of the Year at the 2017 Australian Women in Wine Awards (AWIWA), talks to Ray Ruano about the importance of diversity in wine research. 

Dr. Christine Böttcher is one of the driving forces in battling the effects of climate change on the Australian wine industry.

She received a PhD in plant physiology from the Ruhr-University Bochum and found her true passion when she was introduced to the exciting world of grapes and wine as a postdoctoral fellow. Currently a research scientist at CSIRO Agriculture and Food in Adelaide, she has spent the last decade working to improve understanding of the grape ripening process and has created effective management techniques.

Discovering her passion and moving forward

“The most exciting aspect about working as a scientist is discovery,” Dr Böttcher explains.

That passion saw her begin her career in the biological sciences, with her focus shifting from animal to plant science halfway through her science degree, mainly due to her inspiring physiology lectures.

“Things took a turn again when I realised that while fundamental research on a model species was important and interesting, I really wanted to see my work contributing to 'the real world',” Dr Böttcher explained.

Once the opportunity to join a team of grapevine researchers came around, she ‘took it with both hands’ and hasn't looked back.

“There is just no better feeling than the moment when you realise that your experiments have uncovered something that no one has seen or known about before,” Dr Böttcher said. “It never gets boring, you are contributing valuable information to the scientific, and the wider community, which gives you a real sense of purpose.”

Global warming's impact on wine quality

For the last 10 years, Dr Böttcher’s research has led to the development of methods that improve quality and harvesting issues.

“Global warming-related changes to grape berry ripening pose huge challenges for the viticultural industries and have certainly become the biggest driving force for our research into grape berry ripening and ripening manipulation,” Dr Böttcher said.

As climate change continues to pose a threat to average temperatures, the Australian wine industry is in a ‘vulnerable position since most winegrowing regions in Australia grapes are currently grown at, or above, their optimal temperature’ she explained.

An increase in high temperatures and rapid ripening results in the advancement of sugar accumulation ahead of flavour ripeness.

“[This] can yield fruit/wine of lower value and is leading to significant increases in wine alcohol levels, raising health concerns,” Dr Böttcher said.

Dr Böttcher is also concerned about a relatively new but important issue: harvest season compression. This is a serious problem in growing areas that have difficulty in the management of fruit harvest and the winery intake/process.

“This issue arises because of climate-induced changes in grape berry development, which are causing both white and red varieties to ripen at the same time, putting great stress on both harvesting operations and winery processing.” Dr Böttcher said.

This leads to a decrease in fruit quality and/or results in fruit wastage.

The role of research and sustainability

“Over the last decade, the main aim of our research has been to develop plant growth regulator-based management tools that will allow grape growers to counteract problems associated with increasingly narrow harvest windows and undesirable shifts in the timing of the ripening phase,” Dr Böttcher said.

“We are hoping to be able to deliver a cheap, safe and reliable ripening-delay strategy to Australian grape growers [soon].”

As Böttcher’s research continues to aid in the crisis of global warming-related issues, new methods meet sustainability at the forefront.

“The plant growth regulator-based ripening-delay strategies that we have developed are an example for new management techniques that have the potential to allow the sustained and profitable production of wine grapes from established varieties in established vineyards,” Dr Böttcher said.

The use of such innovative techniques will be ‘key in avoiding the decline of Australia’s prime wine growing regions [and] the costly replanting of new vineyards in cooler climate areas.’

“There can be no doubt that if the status quo prevails, the consequences of climate change will force the relinquishment of established vineyards in the warmer growing regions of Australia,” Dr. Böttcher said.

Diversity and inclusion in the industry

Dr Böttcher is vocal on the value of diversity and inclusivity in any workplace.

“A high degree of diversity regarding background and experience combined with a culture of valuing everyone’s contribution will result in a broad-minded approach to tasks, challenges and interactions,” Dr Böttcher said.

She enjoys working with a diverse group of interesting and intelligent people.

“Diversity and inclusion has been shown to deliver the best outcomes for any type of workplace, including research organisations,” Dr Böttcher said.

As for the women who want to pursue a career in STEMM or the wine industry, Dr Böttcher said: “Very simply put, just do it.”

“There is an ever increasing push for the promotion of women in science and industry, as exemplified by the Australian Women in Wine Awards.”