Thumbs up for fine wine that orbited Earth


Philippe Darriet, president of the Institute for Wine and Vine Research (ISVV) and chief oenologist, holds a bottle of Petrus red wine that spent a year orbiting the world in the ISS. — Photos: AP

It tastes like rose petals. It smells like a campfire. It glistens with a burnt-orange hue. What is it? A €5,000 (RM24,330) bottle of Petrus Pomerol wine that spent a year in space.

Researchers in Bordeaux are analysing a dozen bottles of the precious liquid – along with 320 snippets of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon grapevines – that returned to Earth in January after a sojourn aboard the International Space Station.

They announced their preliminary impressions recently – mainly, that weightlessness didn’t ruin the wine and it seemed to energise the vines.

Organisers say it’s part of a longer-term effort to make plants on Earth more resilient to climate change and disease by exposing them to new stresses, and to better understand the aging process, fermentation and bubbles in wine.

At a one-of-a-kind tasting this month, 12 connoisseurs sampled one of the space-travelled wines, blind-tasting it alongside a bottle from the same vintage that had stayed in a cellar.

A special pressurised device delicately uncorked the bottles at the Institute for Wine and Vine Research (ISVV) in Bordeaux, France. The tasters solemnly sniffed, stared and eventually, sipped.

“I have tears in my eyes, ” said Nicolas Gaume, CEO and co-founder of the company that arranged the experiment, Space Cargo Unlimited.

Alcohol and glass are normally prohibited on the International Space Station, so each bottle was packed inside a special steel cylinder during the journey.

At a news conference on March 24, Gaume said the experiment focused on studying the lack of gravity – which “creates tremendous stress on any living species” – on the wine and vines.

“We are only at the beginning, ” he said, calling the preliminary results “encouraging”.

Faster-growing vines

Jane Anson, a wine expert and writer with the wine publication Decanter, said the wine that remained on Earth tasted “a little younger than the one that had been to space.”

Chemical and biological analysis of the wine’s ageing process could allow scientists to find a way to artificially age fine vintages, said Dr Michael Lebert, a biologist at Germany’s Friedrich-Alexander-University who was consulted on the project.

Stephanie Cluzet, Head of Vine Researcher for the ISVV holds up a snippet of grapevines (left) that spent a year orbiting the world, compared with another sample of grapevine of the same age and grape variety grown on earth.Stephanie Cluzet, Head of Vine Researcher for the ISVV holds up a snippet of grapevines (left) that spent a year orbiting the world, compared with another sample of grapevine of the same age and grape variety grown on earth.

The vine snippets – known as canes, in the grape-growing world – not only survived the journey but also grew faster than vines on Earth, despite limited light and water.

Once the researchers determine why, Lebert said that could help scientists develop sturdier vines on Earth, and pave the way for grape-growing and wine-making in space.

Christophe Chateau of the Bordeaux Wine-Makers’ Council welcomed the research as “a good thing for the industry” but predicted it would take a decade or more to lead to practical applications. Chateau, who was not involved in the project, described ongoing efforts to adjust grape choices and techniques to adapt to ever-warmer temperatures.

“The wine of Bordeaux is a wine that gets its singularity from its history but also from its innovations, ” he said. “And we should never stop innovating.”

More space missions

Private investors helped fund the project, which the researchers hope to continue on further space missions. The cost wasn’t disclosed.

For the average earthling, the main question is: What does cosmic wine taste like?

“For me, the difference between the space and earth wine... it wasn’t easy to define, ” said Franck Dubourdieu, a Bordeaux-based agronomist and oenologist, an expert in the study of wine and wine-making.

Researchers said each of the 12 panelists had an individual reaction. Some observed “burnt-orange reflections”. Others evoked aromas of cured leather or a campfire.

“The one that had remained on Earth, for me, was still a bit more closed, a bit more tannic, a bit younger. And the one that had been up into space, the tannins had softened, the side of more floral aromatics came out, ” Anson said.

But whether the vintage was space-flying or earthbound, she said, “They were both beautiful.” – AP/Masha MacPherson and Angela Charlton

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