Is Wine Just a Clever Mix of Compounds?

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Is wine just a clever mix of compounds? A couple of nerds in the US think it can be. But grapes aside, where’s the blood, sweat and tears, asks Nick Ryan.

Somewhere in California’s Silicon Valley – the northern one where information is binary, not the southern one where the name is a reference to the composition and contours of an actor’s chest – a pair of nerds are working feverishly towards creating an existential crisis for those who love wine.

Mardonn Chua and Alec Lee are the whiz kids behind a biotech start-up that claims to be very close to successfully producing the world’s first entirely artificial wine.

Their thinking is both sound and soul-destroying.

When looked at through a coldly analytical eye, a glass of wine is little more than a collection of something like 1000 different compounds that, in combination, create a particular manifestation of aromas, flavours and textures. Chua and Lee have set themselves the task of breaking down just what those compounds are, then combining their synthesised versions in a solution they theorise should pretty closely approximate the sensory impact of the liquid created when yeasts go to town on a load of squashed grapes.

They say the inspiration came from a visit to Chateau Montelana in the Napa Valley and the bottle of its 1973 chardonnay proudly displayed behind glass. It’s a pretty famous wine; it’s the wine that triumphed at the now legendary Judgement of Paris tasting Stephen Spurrier put on in 1976 that rivals the Last Supper as the most heavily mythologised piss up in history.

“I could never afford a bottle like this, I could never enjoy it,” Chua told New Scientist magazine. “That got me thinking.”

Wine Laboratory

A lot of us come across bottles we’d love to try but can’t afford and end up settling for the best our budget will allow, but Chua and Lee decided to go down the ‘if you can’t make, fake it’ path instead.

Early attempts to recreate something approximating wine weren’t promising. A dozen or more different formulations were produced using the more easily identified compounds one could expect to find in Napa chardonnay – tartaric acid, malic acid, powdered tannin, glycerine, ethanol, sucrose, ethyl hexanoate  (pineapple aromas), butanoate (grapey aromas), limonene for citrus, and acetoin, which is the stuff they use to add a buttery flavour to the popcorn you get at the movies.

While admitting none of the early formulations came close to mimicking the flavours of even the most ordinary chardonnay, Chua did proclaim on news blogging site Medium the liquid was “acceptable enough to drink”.

Clearly the man has a sharp brain and a blunt palate.

This was in March 2016 and much has happened since. Almost $3M has been secured in seed funding and more sophisticated tools like gas chromatography and liquid chromatography have been deployed. Chua and Lee have even hired themselves a tame sommelier and cheekily named the venture AVA Winery, playing on the acronym the Americans use the same way we use GI.

They claim to be almost there on two fronts. The first is a facsimile of moscato d’Asti, which indicates sweetness and fruit forwardness are the easier nuts to crack and that there’s an ocean of shitty imitators of the style out there already, so maybe a synthetic one couldn’t be any worse.

They also claim to have produced nearly 500 bottles of an approximation of the 1992 Dom Perignon. You’d think this might be a trickier proposition and one can’t help but wonder if the choice of what is arguably a lesser vintage of the cuvée speaks to a slightly easier cloning job or simply not knowing there would be far greater achievement in recreating the ’96.

But these questions wither alongside one far more fundamental: why? Just why?

These guys argue that in a future where water and productive land become increasingly scarce, an allocation of these resources for the production of wine could be seen as extravagant. But I’m just not buying it. The way I look after myself, I’d be lucky to see the next election let alone a dystopian future with no room on the planet for one of its greatest pleasures, but if I did, I’d have to favour abstinence over mawkish mimicry of the real thing.

Wine can’t just be broken down into its component elements. It’s a jigsaw puzzle where the pieces are re-cut every time you attempt it and the last one always goes missing. It’s not just an amalgam of acids and tannins, of compounds producing flavours and smells – it’s pruning a vineyard in weather so bad your genitals retreat and use your spleen for a blanket. It’s waking up at 4am when the frost alarm goes off, or getting home at the same hour after doing shots with your Korean distributors in a karaoke bar after your 13th wine dinner in 15 days.

Wine Laboratory

It’s understanding that no matter how much you think you’ve got your head around that bubbling, violent, primordial universe in your fermenter, there’s always something lurking in there ready to prove you wrong.

It’s lying awake at night worrying that it all might turn to shit and it’s the sublime joy in every bottle that tells you you’ve got it right.

None of that can be reproduced in a lab.

Some people are happy to wear a fake Rolex but they don’t understand the only reason you wear a real one is the satisfaction in knowing you can. Some people can’t believe it’s not butter, think seafood can be extended and sexual partners deflated and put away in a box under the bed. But I’m not one of them.

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