Synthetic wine: new start-up claims to mimic fine vintages without grapes
Founders Mardonn Chua and Alec Lee came up with the idea while visiting a winery in California’s Napa Valley in 2015. There, they were shown the bottle of an iconic wine, Chateau Montelena, which is famous for being the first Californian Chardonnay to beat French contenders at the Paris Wine Tasting of 1976.
“I was transfixed by this bottle displayed on the wall,” says Chua. “I could never afford a bottle like this, I could never enjoy it. That got me thinking.”
Traditionally, wine is made by fermenting grapes – yeast turns sugars in the grape juice into ethanol. The process also develops many hundreds of flavour compounds, but takes time and produces variable results. Could there be a simpler way?
Within days, Chua had begun tinkering, combining ethanol with fruity flavour compounds like ethyl hexanoate, which has a fruity, pineapple-like aroma. The initial concoction was monstrous, he says.
But six months later, Chua and Lee now think they have produced an experimental synthetic wine that mimics the taste of the sparkling Italian white wine Moscato d’Asti (see our tasting notes below), and are now turning their hands to producing an imitation Dom Pérignon champagne.
A flavour in a haystack
Wine wouldn’t be the first drink to be artificially mimicked, but it could be the most complex.
For all the world’s love of wine, our understanding of which components are most important for the taste and finish of a wine is patchy at best. A bottle usually contains around 1 000 different compounds, making the challenge of identifying those that are fundamental for flavour significant.
So the team decided to combine chemistry with the expert taste buds of a qualified sommelier. Using gas chromatography mass spectrometry and other tools, the team analysed the composition of wines including Chardonnay, champagne and Pinot Noir, identifying key flavour molecules – like the esters ethyl isobutyrate and ethyl hexanoate – and their concentrations.
They then mixed these molecules and tinkered with their proportions, and had their sommelier test their resulting concoctions.
Tony Milanowski, a winemaking expert at Plumpton College in the UK, has his doubts. Some flavour compounds like fatty acids and esters may be difficult to dissolve straight into a synthetic batch. These are usually produced as microbes ferment the grapes, gradually releasing the chemicals in forms that are able to mix with the other compounds present.
But Chua and Lee are not deterred. “The big secret here is that most compounds in wine have no perceptible impact on the flavour or the aroma,” says Lee.
“It’s absolutely going to be substantially cheaper,” Lee says of their method, which cuts out the need to grow grapes and then ferment them over long periods.
They plan to sell an initial batch of 499 bottles of a Dom Pérignon mimic for $50 a pop, and they will begin shipping this summer to customers keen to experience the taste of a classic champagne that could otherwise cost upwards of several hundred dollars.
But the team is likely to meet with stiff resistance from classical wine makers and researchers.
“It’s nonsense, to be honest with you,” says Alain Deloire, director of the National Wine and Grape Industry Centre at Charles Sturt University, Australia, who has worked for Champagne specialists Moët & Chandon.
Deloire argues that the natural origins of wine – the landscape and culture where the grapes grow – have an indispensable impact on the drink that is produced, and that consumers look for this in what they buy.
One thing that certainly might put consumers off is that any synthetic wine is unlikely to have the word “wine” on its label. There are strict rules governing which products may use this term – in the EU, for example, it must apply only to the fermented juice of grapes, whereas in other jurisdictions like the US other fruits can be used.
But although losing some of the trappings of traditional wine may make synthetic ones less attractive, French winemaker Julien Miquel can foresee an interest in trying recreations of classic vintages. “There would be some curiosity on how close they could get,” he says.
I had high hopes for the synthetic Moscato d’Asti. Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s ready to compete with the real thing……
New Scientist: Read the full article
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