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Interview with António Graça: "Portugal is the most specialized country in the world in the science of wine"

02 March 2021
António Graça is director of the Research and Development department at Sogrape, a Portuguese family company that has been dedicated to the cultivation of vineyards and the production and export of wines since 1942. He holds a master's degree in oenology from the University of Trás-os-Montes and Alto Douro, and since starting his professional career in 1987, has worked as a winemaker for several successful brands of the company and created the department he currently runs, all the while representing Sogrape in several national and international organizations.



You have been in the world of wine since the beginning of your professional life. What attracted you to this area?

In addition to a family connection to the sector, the prospect of working in a profession that, at the time in Portugal, was taking its first steps as a formal technical area, attracted me. I was one of the first to complete a degree in oenology, an area that incorporates, as is known, a significant biological dimension, both in terms of viticulture and winemaking. Biology has always been an area that fascinated me and being able to dedicate myself to it in the context of an activity with such a rich history and such a vast economic importance was, without a doubt, the perception that triggered my decision.

The wine sector is not commonly associated with R&D activities. Is it a sector susceptible to epistemological disruptions? How do you characterize evolution in recent decades?

The wine sector has always lived, contrary to what most think, in permanent technical and scientific evolution. I often say that wine production is innovating every day and investigated every week! Since wine is a natural product, resulting from the interpretation and management of the development of perennial plants - the vines -, subjected to the climatic conditions and the ecosystem where they are found, its production is a permanent adaptation to the objective of producing a drink with sensory expression. It can easily be understood that this objective is only achieved through the management of the enormous natural variability that professionals have to deal with, be it the diversity of vines, their varieties and clones, the ecosystem that surrounds them, the microorganisms present in the conversion of musts in wines - bacteria, yeasts and fungi - not all desirable, the diversity of biochemical balances that condition sensory expression and, finally, the diversity of consumers and their perceptions and preferences. It is a sector that cannot have fixed revenues, it needs the ability to react to each situation and find solutions to the problems of each year.

In the midst of all this diversity, and despite the image of a traditional and immutable sector, knowledge disruptions have been, and are, common throughout its history, evolving production strategies in parallel with human knowledge and available technologies. A careful reading of historical documents shows, and archaeological records confirms, how starting in the Roman empire, all the way to today, the cultivation of grapes and wine production have always absorbed the most advanced knowledge of each era, either to solve challenges, or to amaze the palates. In the last decades, this has been more evident than ever with the formalization of oenological science and the understanding - from the higher education of a significant number of viticulture and oenology professionals and their integration in the entire value chain, to the vineyard and the market - the production conditions that determine the way a wine smells, tastes and is felt by different consumers. And this understanding accelerated the adoption of many concepts and technologies at an accelerated pace, with the consequent redefinition of production strategies, categories of wine products and the innovation that fuels the diversity of the offer.

The wine sector has become a hub for many scientific disciplines, from chemistry to nanotechnology, from physics to robotics, from psychology to sensory science. Today, we have optoelectronics solutions in the classification of the quality of grapes, control of the vine ecosystem using sensors in space, protein tools that guarantee clear and shiny wines without allergenic potential, microfiltration technologies without waste production and data analysis methods that foresee consumer preferences. And much more to come out of laboratories and universities is to be incorporated into the market in the coming years.


How do you see the alignment of the wine sector with the great dimensions of Sustainability - Environmental, Social and Economic - and, in particular, with the European Green Deal?

The sector is fully in tandem with this alignment. In general, the concept of sustainability is embedded in its history and philosophy, namely, by the notion of terroir, an idea that there are geographical areas that, through the combination of natural and human factors, produce a flavor profile shared by the wines there produced. Only in this way is it possible to understand that wine-growing regions and wine production in certain regions have existed consistently for centuries, as is the case in our regions of the Douro or Bucelas, with wine styles that have persisted until today.

It is an area in which the sector, worldwide, leads by example: the first pilot system of sustainability in vitiviniculture was created in 1995 in New Zealand. Four years later, OILB (International Organization for Biological and Integrated Control) created the first international standards for sustainable viticulture specific to grape production, immediately adopted and promoted by the European Union and the government of Portugal, initiating the certification process of a vast number of Portuguese winegrowers in integrated protection and production systems. In 2013, the principles of integrated protection were made mandatory for all national farmers, following the adoption of the European directive on the sustainable use of pesticides. The current strategic plan of the OIV - International Organization of Vine and Wine - a technical and scientific organization that brings together 48 wine-producing countries - for the period 2020 to 2024, has in the first three of six strategic axes the three pillars of sustainability: environment, economic activity and growth of markets, and social development. There is also another strategic axis dedicated to facilitating the digital transition in the sector, another one of the important lines of action of the Green Deal.

In this way, the wine sector maintains its position as an early adopter in the practical and systematic application of the principles of sustainability.

Portugal is a world reference in the sector, as can be seen by the numerous highlights related to Portuguese wines that have appeared in specialty magazines. However, despite some exceptions, there is a perception in the general public that the country does not share the podium with other countries of reference. Is this justified?

Portugal is, in fact, a benchmark with regard to the quality and quality-price ratio of the wines it produces, and for many international consumers it is, in fact, in the podium in these two criteria. But it is still less globally known than other wine origins such as France, Italy, Chile or Australia, for example, despite producing wines like Mateus Rosé, by Sogrape, which has consistently sold millions of bottles in more than 120 countries for years, and has for decades been considered a wine of unquestionable and consistent quality, in addition to its reputation as a brand.

It is a situation that has changed significantly in the last 5 years with the continued increase in our wine exports and, above all, with the explosion of foreign tourism in Portugal, the biggest factor in the discovery of our wines by a large number of international consumers. Since its not among the top 5 wine producers in the world (Portugal has fluctuated between the 10th and 12th positions in recent years), it is not an immediate choice for those who have never had a first experience. But one must try our wines just once, even better if accompanied by our cuisine and surrounded by the landscapes of our wine regions, for that to change.

Naturally, in some markets the perception and preference of Portuguese wines is more frequent, such as in Brazil, unsurprisingly, or Canada, France or Belgium, in a less expected way. The USA, too, is increasingly waking up to Portuguese wines and this growth is expected to continue. So, yes, the perception is justified, but it is changing and organizations like ViniPortugal, which promotes Portuguese wines, have been instrumental in this change.

The sector incorporates a lot of national content and, at the same time, leverages other sectors such as cork and glass. Is there still room for national penetration in the value chain? Where?

There is still a lot of room for national penetration, namely, in everything that has to do with digital transformation, biotechnology, sustainable management, nanotechnology, waste recovery, robotics, renewable energies or sustainable mobility.

The vine and wine sector is one of the sectors with the best trade balance in the country, because it values ​​endogenous resources and exports much of its production. Clustering strategies and business traction, in which large companies enhance innovation and the development of start-ups and SMEs, present opportunities that are still poorly explored, in my opinion, because the myth of the traditionalist sector remains, little permeable to the evolution and technological incorporation, a myth that needs to be undone and that everyone who has the opportunity to work with this sector knows to be false.

Sogrape's activity in Research and Development in the last 15 years clearly shows how the sector can leverage national, competitive and innovative companies, which provide added value to the activity of wine production and trade. Today there are already several national SMEs in the areas of biotechnology, sensors, space technology, digital transformation and innovation management that benefited from the collaboration with Sogrape and the research and innovation ecosystem of the wine sector.

The wine sector is very sensitive to innovation, whether biological, technological, design, etc. How is the job, for an R&D Director of a company like SOGRAPE, to make these transformative processes compatible with the knowledge accumulated over centuries?

From this compatibility, comes the realization of the value of innovation in this sector. Innovation has always resulted from the accumulation and systematization of knowledge and the grape and wine sector is no exception. The innovation of the past is now seen as tradition and people often forget that.

At the beginning of the 20th century, there was an extraordinary innovation resulting from decades of research carried out on the pests and diseases that decimated the vine: the grafting of the European vine species (V. vinífera) on rootstocks of North American species (V. riparia, V. rupestris). With this step, it was effectively possible to create systems of viticulture production resistant to an insect originating in the United States that feeds on the roots of the vine and against which the European vine, producer of the highest quality wines, had no defenses or natural resistance at the time.

Another innovation occurred 70 years earlier, in the middle of the 19th century, when in the Douro region, producers began to add a small amount of brandy to the fermenting must, producing a sweet wine that could be preserved for much longer than any other wine produced so far. In both cases, these were revolutionary innovations that broke with previous paradigms and created a wave of modernization in their time.

Today we see only the result and, if we ignore the research and innovation at its origin, we look at the practice of grafting and Port Wine as old traditions. Worse still, we are tempted to assume that they came about by chance and to devalue all the accumulated and systematized knowledge that gave rise to them, as well as all the difficulties and the time necessary for their adoption and use. Understanding these cycles is critical to properly manage, develop and value the results of the research that we incorporate through innovation, be it process, product, organization or marketing.

Of the investigations that we conduct today and that feed our innovation, some will endure for the value they incorporate and will form part of the tradition of the future. As the company's R&D Director, one of my main functions is precisely to prioritize and pursue those ideas that contain this potential for value and durability, which we do through permanent technological vigilance and challenges that we permanently launch to our partners in the research ecosystem, both incremental and disruptive or blue-sky in nature.

In this perspective, what value does the National Scientific-Technological System in general, and INEGI in particular, have for companies like SOGRAPE?

The SCTN is naturally of great value to Sogrape, either because of the proximity that allows for more frequent and fruitful interaction, or because of the quality that it contains in its institutional and individual stakeholders. We have many good and outstanding examples of scientific excellence in our country, in many scientific disciplines applicable and used in vitiviniculture, some of which have become recognized and adopted worldwide references worldwide.

The collaboration with INEGI came naturally about 15 years ago, when I realized that Portugal is the country in the world most specialized in the science of wine. That is, it's the one with the largest percentage of its total scientific production, in terms of published works, applied to the wine sector. At the same time, at the time, the University of Porto was the institution with the largest scientific production in this sector. Connecting one thing to the other and, due to a provocation made to Professor José António Sarsfield Cabral, a collaboration began that has not stopped growing until today, ranging from explaining the nexus between the climate and the quality of wines, to monitoring drift climate, the use of local meteorological data in precision viticulture and the study of traceability systems and guarantee of authenticity for the bottles we produce.

This allowed us to implement internal services that today support our production teams in viticulture and oenology, and to integrate multiple projects of national and international dimension, such as adapting our economic activity to climate change, and starting to endow the processes of decision in the company with adequate risk management tools.

In the case of INEGI, how do you see the future of collaboration with SOGRAPE?

To the strong and continued partnership we currently have with the Wind Energy group, led by José Carlos Matos, in the quality, collection, validation, storage and return of data from more than 20 weather stations in our vineyards, we will surely add other dimensions in areas of common interest. We have several employees in our teams trained at FEUP, often in direct contact with INEGI, which facilitates the rapid adoption of appropriate technologies.

The digital transformation and the continued adoption of industry 4.0 strategies provide interesting opportunities for collaboration, which can be explored in a way that adds value to our activity. At this point, it is important to keep in mind that, as a company with a strong focus on competitiveness, Sogrape always intends to position itself at the forefront of knowledge and technologies that induce greater profitability, efficiency and resilience, protecting the intellectual property it generates and uses, in insofar as this results in capital gains for its main business: the production and marketing of wines and derivatives.