The future of sustainable winemaking may be steel rather than oak. Image credit: Agrifutures Australia

The next generation of wine & spirits tech is ripe for investment

September 20, 2021

Editor’s note: This sponsored post has been published in partnership with AgriFutures Australia.

The author is Darren Baguley, a writer, farmer, and regenerative agriculture consultant based in Rylstone, New South Wales.

Ageing wine and spirits in oak is a huge part of the tradition of wine and spirit making. When most people think of a winery, it’s hard to not envisage a dark room full of oak barrels on their side. New Zealand’s Accuro has developed a portable micro-oxygenation device that enables winemakers and distillers to take control of their maturation.

Founded in 2014 as Wine Grenade, the Auckland-based company recently rebranded as it started expanding into the spirits market with its patented oxygen diffusion process, which allows wine and spirits to be matured in stainless steel tanks rather than in oak barrels. Fully operational straight out of the box, the device and process significantly reduce costs as well as providing greater control than oak; and despite the weight of that tradition, the product is gaining ground in winemaking regions all over the world.

The oak that wines and spirits traditionally mature in is permeable and the process is simply a slow exchange of oxygen. It is, however, a somewhat uncontrolled process with huge variation between barrels; winemakers and distillers can really only control the amount of time their product spends in the barrel and the age of the barrels they choose to use. Connected to the cloud using the winery’s wifi network, Accuro’s device delivers a precise amount of oxygen per liter of wine per month in a stainless-steel tank to imitate the traditional barrel ageing process.

“We amplify and mimic nature’s ageing process, which lets winemakers and distillers create mature wines and spirits in a fraction of the time,” says Accuro CEO Mark Eltom.

“Maturation is the process of the oxygen in the air interacting with the wood, the oak, and the wine or the spirit. Accuro brings that together, and speeds it up a little bit, supplying oxygen in a very controlled and precise way. Makers can dial up the maturation, or they can dial it back down depending on what they need. By integrating the oak component more quickly and in a more uniform way, wineries and distilleries can bring their product to market more quickly without compromise.”

He adds: “Time is a fire we burn – so why wait for good wine or whiskey?”

Is sustainability reporting ready for its Xero moment? Read more here

Accuro’s micro-oxygenation device is a vital part of the product suite, and Eltom says that its newly released real-time fermentation probe adds yet another level of control for winemakers and distillers.

“The combination of that probe, and our next-generation micro-oxygenation device, is the most advanced oxygenation system in the world. This means we can now service any winery in the world, regardless of its size, its production – and we can now do every stage of production, which is a testament to the hard work of our engineering team.”

Accuro has sold its product into Spain and has beachheads in southern France, Canada, Mexico, and Paraguay – and it has a newly signed major distributor in the US. Now Accuro is seeking to raise a $2 million funding round from interested investors.

“Now that we’ve released some new products and are getting more sales under our belt, Accuro will be looking to raise capital in New Zealand and Australia, as that’s our investor base from before,” Eltom says. “That capital will deepen our knowledge and further develop our fermentation sensors. We’re also looking to further develop the spirits maturation piece that we’re rolling out at the moment.”

“The perfect investor would be somebody who believes deeply in what we do because we’re trying to change the world in our small way,” he adds. “The bonus trait would be somebody who can help fill the gaps in the team or in the company. We have a couple of investors that pitch in and help out and when it happens, that’s just magic.”

‘Game changer’ for lowering production costs

The oxygenation system has been dubbed a “game changer” by Chapel Hill Winery’s winemaker, Bryn Richards, based in South Australia’s McLaren Vale region.

“There is a huge amount of romance and tradition around winemaking but for wines of a certain style, size, and volume the benefits of taking the oak barrels out of the equation are pretty compelling,” he says.

“Oak is a massive labor cost. Every four or five months you have to empty the wine out, wash all the barrels, turn them over, refill them. And if you’re using older oak, it doesn’t matter how good your cleaning regime – oak is a natural material and over time the wood grain starts to harbor bacteria and undesirable kinds of yeasts, which can all affect the finished product.”

According to Bryn, a 50,000-liter tank using Accuro costs $2,500 a year to run including labor, oxygen cylinders, Accuro subscription, and wine loss. In oak, the equivalent would be 166 hogsheads, each at 300 liters. The labor of emptying, washing, and refilling those 166 barrels, plus the evaporation loss, would cost $12,420 a year. And that’s without including costs such as running the forklifts for lifting the barrels, energy, barrel maintenance, and water.

“To wash 166 barrels three times takes around 45,000 liters of water. We run at least 300,000 liters of wine annually using Accuro so we’re saving around 270,000 liters of water,” Bryn says.

Will wine drinkers be able to taste the difference?

Wine is steeped in tradition, it’s a distillation of sunshine, soil, and rain in a glass, and any new technique ultimately has to pass the taste test for wine drinkers. Eltom believes Accuro’s oxygenation technology offers a significant boost to drinkability.

“I don’t want to get too wine-chemistry-geeky here but think of a red wine that’s got that bite, those harsh tannins, the color is a bit pal,e and it’s a bit grippy on the sides and back of the palate. By integrating oxygen and oak, the wine mellows, stabilizes the color, and you can feel it glide over your tongue. It’s just smoother and silkier,” he says.

Tom Dixon, winemaker of Villa Maria Wines in the heart of New Zealand’s Marlborough region, agrees that the technology is a valuable tool.

“It has delivered great results with cleaning up reduction and softening the palate. The versatility and ease of use has been very impressive, and it has proved to be useful in all steps of the winemaking process from primary fermentation of white wines to maturation of our reds,” he says.

Accuro — then Wine Grenade — featured as a participant in the 2019 evokeAG. Startup Program, and is a valuable member of the evokeAG. alumni. The evokeAG. Startup Program is designed to build the capacity of startups in the global agrifoodtech ecosystem and provides a platform for founders to share their stories, and showcase their agritech solutions for global agricultural challenges. Applications for the 2022 Startup Program open on Monday 4 October, 2021.

For more information about Accuro, email CEO Mark Elton here.

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