Sniffing out a simple solution

By Alana Christensen

A University of Melbourne lecturer is turning to dogs to protect wine from a type of yeast, training them to detect it in wine barrels.

Sonja Needs has spent the past year training her border terrier Keely and her German shepherd-husky cross Quinn, as well as a labrador called Bertie, as part of a project to detect brettanomyces, a yeast that can cause spoilage in wine and a ‘band aid’ smell.

The yeast lives inside oak barrels, where it is difficult to get rid of once they become tainted.

Winemakers have previously relied on human or lab detection to discover the yeast.

‘‘Humans can detect brettanomyces at about 300 micrograms per litre, but by the time it’s detected the wine is already tainted,’’ Ms Needs said.

‘‘With climate change we’re seeing a lot more brettanomyces due to warmer weather, it’s popped its head up a little bit more.’’

Ms Needs said the three dogs had already been through lab controlled tests and training to improve their ability to detect the yeast and were showing strong signs.

After six weeks of training the dogs were able to detect one sample tainted with brettanomyces among a dozen samples with 86 per cent efficiency.

Now, with 12 months of training under their collars, Ms Needs said the dogs were 100 per cent effective and could detect the presence of brettanomyces at 0.5micrograms per litre.

‘‘If the dogs can pick it up at that concentration that we could then run the dogs through if it’s at that low concentration and isolate that barrel and treat it if need be,’’ she said.

‘‘Early detection is the key and without having to do lab tests on every single barrel it makes it a cost-saving, time-saving measure and we now know the dogs can do it.’’

Over the next six months to a year, Ms Needs said the dogs would be given training in the field at a number of wineries that have experienced issues with brettanomyces.

As the project enters its final stages, Ms Needs said the future of her discoveries was still unclear but she could see a market for a training program that could allow wineries to train their own dogs to undertake the detection, ultimately preventing the need for bringing in commercial dogs.

Bertie, the labrador, would be known to students and staff at the university’s Dookie Campus, as he belongs to winemaker Chris Barnes and has become something of a mascot.