Nano Girl Michelle Dickinson: Water into wine

Judge Brent Park from Rotorua gets stuck into work at the Air New Zealand Wine Awards at Mt Smart Stadium. Photo / Doug Sherring
Judge Brent Park from Rotorua gets stuck into work at the Air New Zealand Wine Awards at Mt Smart Stadium. Photo / Doug Sherring

The New Zealand wine industry is big business with an estimated annual turnover of $2 billion, $1.42 billion of which comes from export earnings. That makes wine our sixth-largest export by value and with so much scientific research into wine, studying what makes our wine command such a high average price is crucial for sustaining this industry.

One recent Auckland University study found that regional distinctiveness in the aroma and taste of wine, known as the wine's terroir, is partly dependent on the microbes that live around the winery.

Another study found that the yeast which adds the aroma to wine actually smells nice to attract fruit flies so they can hitch a ride and increase their reproductive success. You would think that all this science would be good for our wine industry, an argument strengthened by the possibility of our Government funding the New Zealand Research Institute of Viticulture and Oenology in Marlborough this year.

However, the science that we have been investing in to use for good may be about to totally disrupt the current wine market with possible dire consequences for our export plans.

This week San Francisco start-up Ava winery announced its plan to use science to quickly create cheap synthetic wines.

The company used gas chromatography and mass spectrometry to analyse chemical compounds found in common wines. They discovered that although a wine may contain over 200 compounds, many of these have no impact on the flavour, aroma or texture of a wine. Working to determine what each individual chemical in a wine is responsible for, the company set off on a chemical-mixing mission to find the perfect blend of a complex wine.

Research has found that in wine, tannins create colour and astringency, esters like ethyl isobutyrate create fruity aromas and glycerine increases viscosity for better mouth texture. Ava wanted to know if they could use this data to artificially mimic an Italian white Moscato d'Asti sparkling wine.

Their results were impressive, after some initial research; they discovered they could turn water into wine in approximately 15 minutes.

The side-by-side taste tests indicated that the synthetic wine smelled more artificial but tasted pleasant although not the same as the natural wine, which for a first attempt shows some promising results.

When you consider that naturally produced wine requires years to grow good vines, months to harvest and ferment the grapes and in the case of some French Bordeaux up to 30 years for ageing, the thought of a 15-minute quick fix wine is quite astounding. Ava's synthetic wine has the added benefit of being vegan friendly as it doesn't require fining, a process which in natural winemaking uses the filtering properties of ingredients like bone marrow, fish bladders, milk proteins or egg whites to clarify the wine.

Wine is not the first or the last product to be hacked. Recently Memphis meats created a lab grown meatball with no animal cruelty, Muufri made a cow-less milk based on yeast and Clara Foods invented chicken-less egg whites from plant proteins.

Because current rules insist that the word wine can be used only for the fermented juice of grapes, synthetic wine will currently have to omit the word wine from its label, keeping it separate from its competition.

However, optimistically this wine science hack opens up the possibility of chemically replicating the world's rarest wines. That means one day we may all be able to sample a copy of the exquisite wines usually kept only for the rich and famous.

- NZ Herald

Dr Michelle Dickinson, also known as Nanogirl, is an Auckland University nanotechnologist who is passionate about getting Kiwis hooked on science. Tweet her your science questions @medickinson

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