Improving our wine – one molecule at a time

Dr David Jeffrey

The Australian wine industry, which contributes $40 billion to the national economy and is especially valuable to South Australia, is entering a crucial generational shift as a league of veteran winemakers approach retirement – and wine chemist Dr David Jeffery (BTech(Forensic&AnalyticalChem) ’01, BSc(Hons) ’02, PhD(Chem) ’05) is at the forefront of teaching our emerging winemaking talent.

Having initially studied organic chemistry, Dr Jeffery made the switch to wine chemistry after graduating from Flinders University, joining the Australian Wine Research Institute to secure steady employment in Adelaide, and he found the examination of molecules in wine a fascinating fresh pursuit.

“Not knowing wine so intimately was an asset rather than an obstacle,” says Dr Jeffery. “My curiosity and questioning meant that I was approaching wine research from a fresh angle, and I was able to see different aspects of wine and grapes that needed scientific attention from a molecular perspective.”

Dr Jeffery became an integral part of wine research and teaching oenology at the University of Adelaide from 2010, and he was also co-author of an essential text book – Understanding Wine Chemistry – which interprets the diverse range of possible winemaking outcomes through the lens of fundamental chemical principles. This text book has not only become the bible for international winemaking students, but is also a revered source of information for wine industry practitioners, sommeliers and the general public who are curious about the winemaking process.

“Our approach with the book was to guide wine science students, winemakers and even wine lovers to rationalise or interpret the effects of treatments and processes applied to winemaking, while perhaps only possessing a basic understanding of chemistry at a post-secondary school level,” says Dr Jeffery, “and it has been very effective, around the world.”

In teaching the next generation of winemakers, Dr Jeffery has been alert to address many wine industry trends – including an essential chemistry focus applied to the current fashion for minimal-intervention “natural” winemaking, and the surging interest in producing craft spirits. He has devised a unique five-day short course called “Fundamentals of Spirit Production,” providing information about the production of craft spirits that has guided many in the emerging generation of commercial spirit producers and craft distillers.

Respected as one of Australia’s leading wine chemists and recognised internationally, Dr Jeffery is being challenged to lead inquiry into other areas of commercial possibility – including a response to increasing consumer interest in zero-alcohol wines.

“Consumers may not understand the profound changes that occur when alcohol is removed from wine,” explains Dr Jeffery. “The ethanol produced by sugar’s conversion into alcohol is an agent that interacts with other molecules, so removing ethanol will affect a wine’s aromas and flavours, along with its stability and ageing capacity. We have quite a way to travel to fully understand the chemical and sensory implications of zero-alcohol wines that consumers will enjoy.”

He also remains committed to innovative wine research, with a special interest in volatile sulfur compounds in wine and their precursors in grapes on the vine, which he has studied for more than a decade.

The quality of Dr Jeffery’s scientific inquiry is underlined by him being awarded the Peter Alexander Medal in 2015 by the Analytical & Environmental Chemistry Division, Royal Australian Chemical Institute, for excellence in pure or applied scientific work in analytical chemistry during the first decade of his career.

Dr Jeffery’s ability and interest in teaching and simply explaining the complexity of wine chemistry has made him a favourite science communicator, and he is visible at such public events as Science Alive and Science in the Pub.

“I want the science I teach to be a stepping stone for people in the wine industry. I want them to synthesise the information that I provide and do something with it. Scientific inquiry in wine will always be there, and it’s always the next challenge facing us that is the most exciting.”

Dr David Jeffery has been awarded a 2022 Distinguished Alumni Award for his distinguished contribution to grape and wine research and teaching.

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2022 Alumni Awards College of Science and Engineering Higher Degree Research (PhD)

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