From CSI Crime Scene to Vineyards and Wine Bottles - High Tech Traceability

Traceability is a term that is increasingly used, along with the assertion that "consumers want to know where stuff comes from." A New Zealand company is using technology familiar from TV police forensic programmes to help a super premium wine estate to give assurance about the provenance of its wines.

 

  • New Zealand firm, Oritain, is partnering with a super-premium winery in using forensic technology and QR codes to guarantee traceability of its single vineyard wines
  • The process, pioneered with products such as cotton, meat and apples, involves analysis of trace elements and isotopes in soil, grape and wine
  • Because these do not degenerate over time, the traceability remains effective throughout the life of the wine
  • The Oritain system does not rely on blockchain or RFTs but does not yet guarantee authenticity of individual bottles

 

Reading time: 3m 30s

3d modelling of regions, vineyards and specific plots. Each dot represents one sample, with 10 samples of soil, grape and wine having been taken from each plot. The image on the right illustrates the four different Pyramid Valley wines.
3d modelling of regions, vineyards and specific plots. Each dot represents one sample, with 10 samples of soil, grape and wine having been taken from each plot. The image on the right illustrates the four different Pyramid Valley wines.

What do bales of cotton, apples, venison carcases and bottles of super-premium Chardonnay and Pinot Noir have in common?

They all enjoy the same form of high-tech traceability protection created by a New Zealand company called Oritain.

The business was founded in 2008 and uses forensic science and data technology to prevent fraud from occurring at any stage in the supply chain. Every agriculturally based product, whether flora or fauna, will have absorbed varying concentrations of trace elements and isotopes from the environment in which it was sourced. A Chinese apple may look just like one from Chile, but analytically, they are quite different.
 

Just Like CSI

And just as the fictional forensic experts in TV shows like CSI Crime Scene can trace the nationality and background of a murder victim or where illegal drugs are being manufactured, Oritain can use information taken from the soil of a vineyard, the grapes and the fermented liquid to create a fingerprint that will follow a wine throughout its life.

Oritain’s first client in the wine industry is Pyramid Valley, the estate created by Steve Smith MW in Marlborough on the South Island of New Zealand with his partner Brian Seth, after leaving his high profile role as CEO of Craggy Range. Smith’s ambition was to make ‘cru’ Pinot Noirs from individual sites that had the quality and specific character to be found in single vineyard Burgundies. 

Despite his plots being only 500 metres apart and with apparently quite similar conditions, Oritain was able to use five separate soil samples to draw up clearly different 3-D images for each of them. 

Further detail is added by analysing grapes and the final wine, with the combined information being placed on a database that is accessible via an appropriately fingerprint-like QR code on the wine label. 

Introducing the system for the 2020 vintage of his botanicals range, Smith explains that " We were looking for a way to provide two guarantees to our valuable customers. Firstly, that the wines are 100% of the place we say they come from, and secondly, providing verification of their provenance at any time in the life of a wine. Two principles – ultra-transparency being entirely in our hands; and giving confidence that the supply chain has not delivered a fraudulent wine."
 

Immortal Evidence

Since the elements do not degrade, in theory, the authentication will last forever, but Stew Whitehead, Oritain’s head of food sales acknowledges that, at present, the system has not been specifically set up to accommodate specific vintages. The variation in soil, apparently from one year to the next is very small so, to guarantee that a wine is in fact a 2020 rather than another vintage or a blend of more than one year would depend on samples taken of the wine as it is bottled.

Oritain’s model cannot in itself, Whitehead and Alastair Maling the New Zealand Master of Wine who is working with the company as a consultant, acknowledge, guarantee the authenticity of the wine in the bottle. It would be entirely possible for a criminal to buy an authentic example and simply print a copy of its QR code onto a batch of fakes. The only way to for them to be caught out would be for a 5ml sample to be taken for analysis from the bottle using a Coravin. 

"Oritain is not about authenticity. It’s an insurance policy.”

“Our system” Stew says “sits alongside the ones already being used by the Bordeaux first growths to guarantee authenticity. It is not looking to take over from them.” As a user, Smith is clear that Oritain is “not about authenticity. It’s an insurance policy.” The QR code is a scientific “engagement tool”, and Whitehead says, “the fact that we can do it acts as a deterrent”.
 

No Blockchain... yet

Unlike other authentication models, Oritain does not rely on blockchain technology or NFC chips, but if it gains traction, use of these would add to its capabilities. Whitehead is also unwilling to discuss costs but says that, the current model is based on the number of bottles are sold. Again, this might apply more easily to a super-premium winery producing a few thousand cases than to a larger volume brand which is also vulnerable to forgery.

Wine is clearly a new departure for Oritain, but given the growing interest in traceability in every sector, its 2020 corporate value of $NZ 45m ($25.5m) and the high profile nature of clients such as Cotton USA, the company is well placed to move into the industry at a number of levels.

 

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