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Concha y Toro aims to become an international benchmark for applied research

Par Sharon Nagel Le 05 février 2015
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Concha y Toro aims to become an international benchmark for applied research
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t took over a decade of careful consideration and an initial investment of $5 million for Concha y Toro’s new Centre for Innovation and Research to break ground. The world’s fourth-largest winery now intends to leverage the advances in knowledge and market intelligence achieved by the centre to make both the company and the Chilean wine industry more competitive. VITISPHERE asked Blanca Bustamente, corporate communications manager and a member of the Centre’s board, to outline the company’s ambitions for the new facilities.

 

Can you describe the new centre?

The 1,500-m2 centre houses a laboratory with state-of-the-art equipment, an experimental cellar and tasting and extension rooms. The laboratory features high-precision instruments and includes units for molecular biology, foliar, soil and sensory analysis and in vitro propagation of plants. With a production capacity of 200 tonnes of grapes, the experimental winery will allow small-batch wine making and includes 72 temperature-controlled stainless steel tanks with a capacity ranging from 250 to 300 litres. A further 140 ageing tanks, ranging from 50 to 100 litres each, will be used for malolactic fermentation and ageing. The extension centre will welcome conferences, seminars and workshops, to promote exchanges amongst major industry players and research scientists, and also houses a library, auditorium, tasting and meeting rooms.

 

The Centre is currently working on two lines of research. Can you tell us more?

One project, which actually started in 2013, is dedicated to assessing different Cabernet-Sauvignon clonal material, specifically related to the Cauquenes area of Maule. We are evaluating how different clones evolve in terms of productivity and quality; Cabernet-Sauvignon is pivotal to Chile and to Concha y Toro. The second project involves different leaf removal strategies and sunlight protection techniques for improving red wines, also encompassing Cabernet-Sauvignon. We assess the different taste profiles of the wines, depending on whether they have been more or less exposed to sunshine.

 

What other lines of research do you intend to explore in the future?

There are five lines of research: the study of genetic material which is very important because the company has devoted a lot of time and effort to the production of its own plants; viticulture – everything related to plants, water, soils etc; wine making processes through to bottling; product design and new products; and finally market research. We have already started the genetic material and viticulture studies. We are also launching a project on grapevine trunk diseases.
 

The initial investment is $5 million. How much do you expect the Centre to cost annually?

The project is being partly funded through a significant tax incentive that promotes innovative projects in Chile; companies investing in research and innovation can deduct some of their investments from their taxes. The $5 million investment was needed for the building and all the equipment for the facilities. We are not disclosing annual running costs but suffice it to say that the centre is important to Concha y Toro. The centre is a business unit within the company and we are expecting to conduct new lines of research in partnership with other organisations or companies in Chile and abroad, to share the cost. We are very open to new partners and already have some in mind. As yet, though, we have not established partnerships other than those with UC Davis and Mercier. We already work with researchers from Chilean universities such as Catolica, Concepcion and Talca.
 

The Centre is a private corporate initiative. Could this act as a barrier to the dissemination of research results and good practice?

It’s true that this is an individual corporate initiative but as a company, we have a hands-on approach and have a detailed knowledge of industry needs. The challenges we face are the ones facing the entire industry. Our research priorities are therefore in line with those of the industry at large. As a private company, we are also looking to achieve results and applied research with a real impact. Sometimes, university research is too theoretical and the findings are difficult to implement. Concha y Toro is a major player in the Chilean wine industry and sources grapes from approximately 830 independent growers. It therefore relates to small and medium-sized grape producers and other industry players. If we can obtain results on what and where to plant and can point grape growers in the right direction, then the whole industry will benefit. Obviously as a corporate research centre, some results will be private and for the company’s use only. This is true of other research centres where some of the results remain confidential. However, our extension centre - a very important component of the project - is designed to share results.


Why should a research centre for the Chilean wine industry be established by a private company and not by a state-funded organisation?

At least three or four universities in Chile conduct research projects aimed at wine. The industry also took part in the creation of the Consorcio tecnologico which promotes collaborative research. So, there has been joint research for a long time under the Wines of Chile umbrella. However, the Concha y Toro centre is something the company needed and fits in well with our strategy of vertical integration: we produce plants and plant vineyards and are the second-largest winery in terms of vineyard holdings worldwide with 10,700 hectares in three countries and annual sales of 300 million litres. In 2014/2015, we will be planting approximately 280 hectares of mainly Chardonnay, Cabernet-Sauvignon, Merlot and Sauvignon blanc in Chile in order to support volume growth and be able to improve and control the quality of our wines. Hence, research and innovation is of paramount importance to the company and the new centre is like a small university within it. We will be increasing the scope of our research to include, for example, market intelligence. Companies release new labels and styles every year so there is a lot of pressure to innovate with lower alcohol products and products designed for Millenials for instance. We are looking to innovate with new products, new varieties, new terroirs and want to see where each variety thrives best. In terms of market research, we are already expecting to see some new product launches but I cannot disclose any information on that as yet.

 

What are the biggest challenges facing the Chilean wine industry over the next few years?

The challenge is for the industry to continue growing and positioning itself as a producer of premium wine and secure a larger share of that market. Sustainability is also highly important to the industry today. Climate change, fewer available water resources, improvements in yields and competitiveness are all part of the challenges we face and obtaining the right, healthy plants is key to achieving these goals. The centre can play a major part in this. Developing new technologies and studying aspects that can have a real impact in terms of making the industry more competitive are at the core of our strategy and are key issues for Chile.

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