Prof Benoit Divol from the Department of Viticulture and Oenology in the Faculty of AgriSciences at Stellenbosch University delivered his inaugural lecture on Thursday 26 October 2023. The title of his lecture was “Unbottling the flavour of wine yeasts: an exploration of bubbling diversity".
Divol spoke to the Corporate Communication and Marketing Division about how his research on wine yeasts and fermentation helps to improve the flavour of wine.
Tell us more about your research and why you became interested in this specific field.
My research falls under the broad field of wine microbiology and particularly under two main themes: wine yeast physiology and wine yeast cell wall biochemistry and enzymology. As part of the former theme, my research team investigates the nutritional requirements and the metabolism of wine yeasts to understand why and under which conditions yeasts produce (or do not) certain metabolites which act as flavour or off-flavour compounds in wine. In the latter, we investigate the activity of specific hydrolytic enzymes (enzymes that break down large molecules into small molecules) which can facilitate certain winemaking processes such as clarification and release of varietal flavour compounds. I am particularly interested in exploring the diversity occurring within wine yeasts.
I was born in Paris, France in a family of teachers. By the end of high school, I had no idea what career to choose. I only knew that I had a keen interest in biology. I therefore started to study biology, then agricultural sciences and when we had to choose a specialisation, I chose oenology (wine science), maybe because as the French writer Bossuet said: “Wine has the power to fill in the soul with all truth, all knowledge and philosophy". At this point, still being uncertain about what to do next, I decided to do a research master's with a focus on wine microbiology. During that year, I had a real epiphany and decided to continue with a PhD.
From there on, I had no doubt that research in wine microbiology had to be a focal point of my future career. I find it fascinating, complex and rewarding. I truly enjoy the frustrations and rewards, trials and errors that are a core part of experimental research. And there are worse research topics to investigate than wine!
How would you describe the relevance of your work?
Research in wine microbiology has a direct relevance to the wine industry. Some of my research projects generate more fundamental outcomes and others are more applied, but all of them aim to address knowledge gaps related to wine yeasts and fermentation, and/or to provide solutions to specific industrial challenges. The wine industry currently faces numerous challenges such as climate change, economic and environmental sustainability, changes in drinking habits and health concerns, to cite a few. My research cannot obviously solve all of them, but my research connects in one way or another to these different aspects.
What do you like most about your work?
Without hesitation, the intense discussions, brainstorming sessions and simple chats with my postgraduate students! I've always found the human aspect of my job somewhat challenging, but above all, extremely rewarding. Postgraduate studies are difficult and accompanied by extreme sentiments as one learns to deal with failure, demotivation, pressure, stress, etc. It is hard work, but it is also exhilarating. It is a school of life and I truly like to be part of this process and help my students succeed.
Looking ahead, what aspects of wine microbiology would you still like to explore?
There is a lot to explore further, but in the near future, I intend to turn my attention to the uptake and metabolism of nutrients that have only partially been investigated, especially in the context of yeast interactions during wine fermentation. I will also continue to explore the unique features of certain wine yeasts that are of interest to the wine industry. I also want to continue to investigate certain hydrolytic enzymes that could be used to solve current challenges faced by the wine industry. Although curiosity is a key driver of my research programme, I try to ensure that most aspects are relevant to the broader wine industry.
Tell us something exciting about yourself that people would not expect.
I have a genuine passion for history and genealogy, and I always spend a part of my holidays mining the French archives to “resuscitate" my ancestors.
How do you spend your free time?
My job keeps me quite busy, so free time is limited, but I cannot switch off the lights in the evening without reading a few pages of whichever novel is on my bedside table. I particularly enjoy detective and historical fiction. I jog and swim on a regular basis to keep sane, but when given the opportunity, I truly enjoy hiking and cross-country skiing.
- Photo by Ignus Dreyer (Stellenbosch Centre for Photographic Services)