Researchers at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s Summerland Research and Development Centre have spent years researching and working with local farmers to try to mitigate grape diseases. (File photo)

Researchers at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s Summerland Research and Development Centre have spent years researching and working with local farmers to try to mitigate grape diseases. (File photo)

Okanagan researchers fighting to keep Canadian wine thriving

Throughout their growth, grapes must survive a wide range of diseases before being made into wine.

Diseases in fruit might not be something you think about on a daily basis. However for those in the fruit and wine industry, it’s often at the forefront of their minds.

For the last five years researchers in Summerland have been dissecting the well-being of grapes.

They are doing so in the hope that the wine industry in the Okanagan, and Canada, will continue to thrive for years to come.

Dr. José Ramón Úrbez-Torres, Dr. Pat Bowen, Carl Bogdanoff and Dr. Kevin Usher of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s (AAFC) Summerland Research and Development Centre understand that every Canadian grape that becomes wine must first survive a range of diseases. The researches have spent years researching and working with local farmers to try to mitigate those diseases.

One major threat to grapes is leafroll disease. It’s caused by several viruses that combine to delay fruit ripening and lower fruit quality and is considered one of the most destructive diseases for grapevine health in the world.

Úrbez-Torres, a plant pathologist, elaborated, “once it attacks, it can cut grape yields by as much as 40 per cent. It can be devastating to farmers, local wine makers and winery-based tourism because no healthy grapes means no high quality wine.”

Another enemy is red blotch disease. Research conducted at AAFC’s Summerland Research and Development Centre showed infected grapes ripen later, have altered colour and are smaller, which lowers the quality and value of the wine.

Diseases, they explain, can be carried by insects. To fight this, they teamed up with AAFC Entomologist Dr. Tom Lowery to figure out which insects were carrying the disease to plants, study the biology of the disease, and test ways to control it naturally.

READ MORE: New scholarship to honour Canadian wine icon Harry McWatters

The traditional method of using chemical pesticides to control grapevine diseases is now being replaced with more environmentally friendly methods, explained Úrbez-Torres.

“Both consumers and farmers are looking for alternative methods to win this battle. It’s a pressure cooker to find solutions,” he said.

Úrbez-Torres and his colleagues have been working with local farmers for the past five years. They’ve been teaching growers about the diseases, the germs involved and in some cases the insects that spread them. Their goal is to use all available information to develop and implement regional strategies to control the spread of grape viruses.

The researchers explained that this knowledge didn’t come out of thin air; it is the result of years of mapping and monitoring the natural spread of the viruses.

“My colleagues and I are passionate about what we do. Canada has an award-winning wine industry that bottles over 250 million bottles a year. We can’t let farmers, vintners, and Canadians down,” said Úrbez-Torres.

“This is a battle we will continue to fight so that people can lift a glass of Canadian wine and say this is the best wine they ever tasted.”

READ MORE: Growing demand for skilled workers in the wine industry

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