Register Sunday | June 24 | 2018

Vintage Science

When it comes to wine, will science trump tradition?

On April 1, 2005, celebrity chef Jamie Oliver’s website posted a breathless announcement about Merlonay, a genetic marriage between Merlot and Chardonnay that “appears white, but tastes red.” The hybrid grape boasted improved juicing capacity and would “surely reshape the face of [the] industry as we’ve come to know it.” Merlonay was, of course, an April Fool’s joke. But just because it wasn’t real, doesn’t mean it’s far-fetched. In fact, scientifically enhanced wine making might only be a few experiments away.

 

The traditional way to craft a full-bodied, even-coloured wine involves seven easy steps:

1. Grow grapes.

2. Harvest grapes.

3. Extract juice.

4. Sterilize juice.

5. Add yeast.

6. Watch closely (fermentation).

7. Watch less closely (ageing).

There’s one catch: none of these steps are easy. Even predicting something as seemingly obvious as véraison (the moment when a hard, green grape ripens into a soft, coloured fruit) is frustrating and difficult—and a single bottle of wine involves the simultaneous processing of 500 to 700 individual berries. Factor in the complexities of the yeast (there are 150 strains to choose from) and it’s no wonder every bottle of wine, like every fingerprint, is considered a unique, cryptic puzzle.

Genomics may be just the thing to help the vintner decipher the puzzle. Genetic technology allows investigators to look at many genes for a given organism in a given situation. The result is an exhaustive profile of binary answers, representative of the actions of hundreds of thousands of genes. A grape’s gene fingerprint, for example, may suggest the optimal time for pruning or irrigation; understand a yeast’s DNA and you may understand how it works during fermentation. Genomics also promises to find solutions to economically crippling maladies such as crown gall disease (which costs Ontario vineyards $2 million a year in menaced crops) or the fanleaf virus (currently souring 25,000 acres of grapes in France). Genetic science might even help us predict how a batch of wine will taste, based on metabolic similarities to a known vintage.

Trouble is, not everyone thinks science should meddle in the creation of a great bottle of wine.

Grapes are the most economically important fruit on the planet, driving a multi-billion-dollar global industry. Vineyards occupy more than 7.9 million hectares worldwide, with approximately three quarters of all grapes destined for wine production. Old World wines comprise about 70 percent of the total world production (almost half of that in France and Italy alone). New World wines, however, have been making consistent market gains, particularly since the notorious Paris Wine Tasting of 1976, when blind tests befuddled numerous French experts: shockingly, they favoured California wines over local products.

Although a novice on the scene—even compared to fledgling siblings like Chile or Australia—the Canadian wine industry has seen swift development over the past decade, with a combined total of 7,000 hectares of wine grapes currently planted. Business is especially good in British Columbia; in the last twenty years, the province’s wine industry has grown from a few government-sponsored experimental plots to over 100 wineries, the vast majority in the Okanagan Valley. Moreover, BC attracts international acclaim for its ice wines and table wines fashioned from classic French and German varietals. Annual sales of Vintner’s Quality Alliance wines (the VQA designation guarantees certain quality standards and origin authenticity for BC wines) increased from $24 million in 1994–1995 to $92 million in 2003–2004. The next year, they leaped to $112 million. And there is no sign of business slowing down.

British Columbia’s success underscores the need to protect this budding industry from the surprises so prevalent in the fickle art of viticulture. BC vintners, because of their plantations’ northern latitudes and shorter-than-usual growing season, are eager for detailed information about the nuances of grape development, how that development is affected by climate conditions and the mechanics of fermentation. Steps to aid the BC wine industry began with provincial government grants to replace undesirable varieties with premium vines in the late nineteen-eighties, and the founding of the BC Wine Institute in 1990.

“We are a young region,” states the institute’s brochure “Why British Columbia Is Not Just Another Wine Region.” “We are not bound, stifled and restricted by rules. We experiment. We play with wine in ways that regions steeped in tradition wouldn’t dream and if they could dream, tradition wouldn’t allow. We have freedom.”

The province is very serious about “playing” with wine. Set up at the University of British Columbia in 1999, the Wine Research Centre (WRC) is an academic research unit that houses faculty and graduate students doggedly pursuing the biological questions surrounding wine production. At their disposal is a wine library with a 22,000-bottle capacity (tech-curious BC winemakers donate samples of their wares) and a vinothèque which stores 8,000 bottles of the world’s greatest vintages. Researchers probe the chemical secrets of the wine-making process in state-of-the-art laboratories, complete with serious molecular biology firepower (mass spectrometry, DNA microarrays, etc.).

WRC researchers may soon be able to compare grape X as it is grown in a hot climate versus a cold climate. Knowing a grape’s optimal harvest time means increasing the consistency with which one can produce optimally flavourful wine—a bonus that can directly translate into more dollars in a winemaker’s pocket.

In 2004, WRC and Spanish scientists launched GrapeGen, a three-year, $6.2 million project co-funded by Genome Canada and Genome Spain, to examine grapes at their genomic level. The project easily eclipses similar grape-genetics efforts in the United States, Australia, South Africa and Chile, putting Canada and Spain on the forefront of wine innovation. It may not be “Merlonay,” but the research promises big benefits for BC’s surging wine industry by using high-tech insight to master the capricious process of growing and harvesting wine grapes. Soon, we might be able to say goodbye to pretentious wine-snob prattle, and hello to a precise understanding of a great wine’s biochemical workings—and, ultimately, better wine.

Fervent supporters argue that BC could one day defy traditional geographic limitations and cultivate super-sensitive grapevines such as cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay.

“My analogy is with the Human Genome Project,” explains Dr. Hennie van Vuuren, the director of the WRC. “There, you have the human DNA code sequenced in its entirety, and from it you gain insight and information on so many things related to function, to diseases, to basic understanding. The same would be true with the grapevine and wine yeast.”

But, just as there is heated debate about the merits of human-gene testing, GrapeGen has its opponents. Old-school winemakers in California and Europe, particularly in France, are vocal in their dissent. According to them, wine’s value and profitability depend on tradition. Any attempt to study the grapevine at the molecular level, any attempt to understand how the grape’s genetic makeup affects quality and growth, will kill the romance of wine and its connection to tradition and history.

“The makers of the world’s finest wines are artists,” says Tod Stewart, a contributing editor for Tidings magazine. “One of the big problems with applying technology to art is the risk of sameness. Technology may help you work out the bumps and wrinkles, but it’s these bumps and wrinkles that make a work of art unique. The person who is willing to cough up $300, or $3000, for a single bottle of a particular estate wine would feel monumentally ripped off if they found out that it had been made, basically, in the lab rather than in the vineyard proper.”

It escapes no one’s attention that such opposition may also stem from the fear that genetic insight could allow other regions to better compete with the European old guard. The French wine industry accounts for one fifth of world production and 75,000 jobs, but it’s already losing market share to genetic-modification-friendly Australian and Chilean upstarts.

What the French call terroir—the complete environment in which a wine is produced (soil, slope, altitude and climate) and by extension the idea that certain grapes can only be grown “properly” in certain locations—is what drives the traditionalists’ opposition.

The irony is that the French themselves have long played with the biology of their vines. In fact, their grapes have been growing on borrowed roots since phylloxera all but decimated the European wine industry in the late eighteen-hundreds. At that time, American vines proved exceptionally resistant to the tiny louse, prompting French growers to physically graft their European vine stems to transplanted American roots.

Tradition, it would seem, runs deeper than roots. Science may be able to manipulate a pinot noir grape (traditionally planted in limestone-rich soil and cooler climates) so that it performs equally well in, say, BC’s Similkameen Valley—but aficionados bristle at such interference. “It would be seen as the highest order of cheating,” says Stewart. “Great wine is about authenticity and the ability to reflect the terroir in which it was made.”

 

Yet not all connoisseurs blanch at the idea of reducing a wine’s “complexity” to a chart describing how chemical compounds age. “To be able to determine what gives the [legendary] 1947 Cheval Blanc its unique flavour characteristics would ultimately allow the consumer to purchase a wine with a chemical composition that we know historically we like,” notes Ritch Younger, the céllerier (treasurer) for the Vancouver branch of the Confrérie des Chevaliers du Tastevin, a fraternity founded in France in the nineteen-thirties to “ensure” the quality of Burgundy wines (a Tastevin seal can be found on the labels of select bourgognes). “Rather than read some vague prattle by some self-aggrandizing wine critic or wine magazine, would it not be nice to be able to see that wine X has a similar profile to the wine Y that you already love?”

Of course, it’s a short leap from monitoring the grape to modifying it. French consortiums like Terre et Vin du Monde have consistently opposed the introduction of genetically modified (GM) vines outside the laboratory setting, including even the smallest controlled field tests. In a 2003 report it emphatically stated, “We are, all of us, in favour of progress. However, GMOs [genetically modified organisms] could represent a huge danger for a viticultural regime where the expression of terroir must have priority over technology.”

Last fall, researchers at France’s Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique planted genetically modified grapevines in an Alsatian test vineyard—a move backed by government scientists but strongly opposed by leading winemakers. Italy and France have announced plans to sequence the entire grape genome. Yeast isn’t safe from tweaking either: Van Vuuren has already engineered an FDA-approved strain which reduces harsh acids common in cold-climate conditions, preventing what critics call “greenish” (read: sour) tendencies. Bonus: It stymies the formation of headache-inducing metabolites. Still, Dr. Steven Lund, a grapevine molecular biologist and faculty member of the WRC, is adamant that the centre uses grape genomics only to diagnose problems or monitor the grape for maximum flavour. The WRC, he says, is interested in achieving consistent, high-quality fruit from season to season—not engineering a better grapevine.

But Lund also makes it clear that “there is great potential for GM grapevines if and when the public accepts the technology as safe. Although for now, there is no reason why anyone should be concerned about potential misuse of the technology in viticulture.”

Were such high-tech wines to come to pass, it wouldn’t necessarily spell the end of tradition. Tod Stewart, for one, foresees a relatively peaceful co-existence. “When you are talking good, affordable, consistent-tasting ‘everyday’ wines,” he says, “science is a great helper. Let’s face it, the majority of wine drinkers probably don’t give a rat’s butt about how the wine is actually made.”

“However, if established, respected, high-demand wine estates announce—or are found to be using—scientifically modified fruit,” he adds, “my feeling is that consumers and critics would go ballistic.”

 

In the Wine Research Centre, there’s a window display of emptied bottles of wine, some quite old. Van Vuuren explains that they were some of the best wines in the world, opened and sampled by graduate students. In order to effectively train these future winemakers and scientists, he believes they must taste the finest.

“When I began my career in science,” Van Vuuren recalls, “I was studying beer fermentation. Then one day, my supervisor opened this bottle of 1970 Armand Rousseau Chambertin–Clos de Bèze and it just blew my mind. I’d never tasted anything like it before, and I just got so excited.”

“Really,” he adds, “we just want to help make the best bottle of wine.” With those words, Van Vuuren inadvertently nails the big truth so often overlooked in the science–wine debates. Despite claims to make calculated discriminations of this sort and promises that genetic technology might alter the bouquet or mouth feel of a product, it’s impossible to fix standards in such matters.

Science, after all, is one thing. Taste is quite another.