02 May 2018 Harnessing the bugs that give wine its flavour
Can sequencing a vineyard’s microbiome make it possible to reverse engineer a fine wine?
For the uninitiated, wine talk can be puzzling. Oenophiles gush over hints of tobacco, pencil shavings, charred herbs, and loamy soil. It’s brawny, chewy, cedary, or raw.
Whether these descriptions are perceptive or pretentious, they all get at something subtle and complex about wine, notably terroir: the idea that a wine’s characteristics are an expression of the place where the grapes grow.
Soil, climate, geology, topography, elevation, and local winemaking traditions and techniques all make a particular wine different from others made with the same grapes.
But now scientists are finding another factor contributes to terroir: microbes.
Every winemaker already knows that microorganisms drive the fermentation process that turns grape juice into a potent potable. But they’ve had little insight into the thousand species of fungi, bacteria, and archaea that teem in the soil, on the vine and the fruit, and even in the cellar, forming communities known as microbiomes.
In the soil, these microbes can alter how roots grow and absorb nutrients, which affects the quality of the grape. Although microbes are filtered out of the finished product you drink, they persist through the fermentation process, producing chemicals that taste of, say, vanilla or butter.
What most of these microbes do, exactly, is still a bit of a black box. But a San Francisco-based startup called Biome Makers wants to help growers and winemakers better understand how these critters affect their product.
For $199 a pop, vintners can submit a sample of their soil, vine, grape, unfermented grape juice, or any other part of the fermentation process.
By sequencing the microbial DNA, Biome Makers provides an analysis of the sample’s microbiome, giving growers a potentially powerful new way to manage their grapes and winemaking process.
“Now we have the possibility to understand the microbiome and the microbes of wine,” says Francisco De Frutos, the U.S. business development manager for Biome Makers.
Researchers are still teasing out the details for how specific microbes affect wine, and even De Frutos admits that precise prediction and control is not yet possible. But someday, scientists’ understanding of the wine microbiome could allow for fine-grained manipulations of terroir.
The startup, founded in 2015, is part of a wave of companies trying to make better use of the microbiome for agriculture.
Startups and big corporations such as Bayer think that manipulating microbes will boost crop yield and quality and help manage diseases.
In one ambitious partnership, Bayer and a synthetic biology company, Ginkgo Bioworks, are trying to engineer microbes that will enable a wide variety of plants to get nitrogen from the air rather than requiring fertilizer.
In March, Bayer established a new lab space for biotech startups, with Biome Makers as its first tenant. Startups such as Trace Genomics also sequence soil microbiomes to help growers ensure healthy soil.
A company called MicroTrek samples microbes to monitor fermentation and spoilage during food and beverage production.
As part of its service, called WineSeq, Biome Makers provides a website that vintners can use to understand their wine microbes. The site identifies microbes that may muck up fermentation — an abundance of a bacterium that produces acetic acid, for example, leading to an overpowering taste of vinegar.
The company also flags pathogenic microbes that could cause diseases on the vines…..