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By Emily Lehmann 6 March 2023 2 min read

In every drop of wine there is a story of its origins.

There are subtle hints in taste for the connoisseur – fruity notes, hints of pepper or strong tannins. But each drop of wine also has a unique chemical signature that we can trace back to the vineyard.

With her best detective hat on, post-doc Ellyse Bunney, is developing new world-leading techniques to trace Australian wine back to its origin.

Research amongst the grape vines

It’s an idyllic gig, if not just for the location amongst the rolling green vineyards in the Barossa Valley, South Australia.

Ellyse is conducting experiments on Shiraz grapes in collaboration with the South Australian Research and Development Institute and the Australian Wine Research Institute.

“I’m using the chemistry found in the grapes and connecting them to the water, soil and climate they grew in,” Ellyse said.

The end goal is to create a wine provenance map of Australia. Regulators and exporters will be able to use the provenance map to verify a bottle's contents. So consumers can rest assured when purchasing a top drop. Particularly in international markets where food fraud is an issue.

Tracing wine to vine

Verifying product credentials is a key focus for the Trusted Agrifood Exports Mission. This Mission is in partnership with the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry and Meat & Livestock Australia.

“Tracing where something comes from allows you to answer all sorts of questions. Not just where a product came from, but how it was grown,” Ellyse said.

“We are doing experiments on different water sources and how that impacts the signature in the grapes and the soil it grew in.

“Water, climate and fertiliser, for example, all vary the signature you get. So we combine all these factors to create a unique isotopic signature or fingerprint.

“By mapping this, we can provide transparency on ‘Australian grown’ product claims.”

The benefit of this work transcends wine, with the vision to apply it to Australian food more broadly.

Ellyse is looking at how different agricultural management practices influence the chemical signatures in wine products.

Transparent supply chains – from food and drink to illegal logging

There is a need for supply chain transparency in areas other than wine origins.

Ellyse demonstrated this best through her PhD with University of Adelaide, by analysing seized sandalwood for an illegal logging case.

“We have illegal logging laws which are impossible to enforce without evidence to show the wood has come from a protected area.”

My PhD research, undertaken in collaboration with CSIRO, aimed to develop a new tool to fill this gap.”

Ellyse analysed samples from the South Australian Department of Environment and Water in an ongoing illegal logging case. The results showed a strong chemical difference between the wood that was seized, suspected of being illegal, and samples from the location where the paperwork said it came from.

“It was the missing piece they were able to use to prosecute the case," Ellyse said.

“My pie-in-the-sky dream in doing science was to make a difference or help someone. But it wasn’t something I was expecting to do so early in my career! So now I’m applying these same techniques, but in a different way, to solve challenges in our food system.”

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