If you gaze upon these images for a few moments (some might need more time), you will notice a few things. Most significant is that things tend to not only get more colorful towards the end, but also more revealing. Those of you who aren’t too thrilled by the images above might wonder what scantily clad damsels have to do with the evolution of wine technology. Best you read on then.
During an ancient and alcohol fueled conversation, a chef expressed his discontent at the notion of wine research. His bottom line was that you cannot drink research. After a few moments of thought (which was remarkably difficult at that time), I pointed out the obvious improvement of wine during the past 100 years. Also the availability of science and technology allowing for the abundance of excellent wines which are currently available. Just like the evolution of the bikini, science allows you to make things more revealing. To strip things down to the basics and to fulfill a very important need…
Alcoholic fermentation by yeast is a natural and beautiful thing. One might even call it a simple process. Nonetheless, this seemingly simple process is governed by hundreds of thousands of elements, chemicals, enzymes and micro-organisms. Louis Pasteur, often called the father of microbiology, paved the way for the identification, enumeration and understanding of all micro-organisms. His humble beginnings in the early 1860’s allowed him to conclude that micro-organism can lead to wine, beer and milk spoilage. Back then, all germs were seen as the enemy. Who would have thought that more than 150 years later, we add specific yeast and bacterial cultures to wine in order to make better wines. You can practically get a wine yeast for any grape variety, winemaking condition and style that you desire. In 1953, James D. Watson and Francis Crick suggested the first correct double-helix model of DNA structure, which with ongoing research and refinement allowed us to study yeast genes and this helped us with the continuing selection and improvement of yeast strains for specific new world winemaking conditions.
Enzymes have also come a long way since their discovery in 1833 by Payen and Persoz, who treated an aqueous extract of malt with ethanol and precipitated a heat-labile substance which promoted the hydrolysis of starch. Nowadays, it is hard to imagine any commercial winery without the use of all the different enzymes. Not only do enzymes improve wine quality, but they also make life easier for the winemaker. For example, a settling AND skin contact enzyme like Rapidase Expression (Oenobrands) allows for a single addition at crushing of white grapes. Not only is varietal character enhanced, but more than ample enzyme activity remains after pressing in the settling tank.
Remarkable advances have also been made in cellar and wine treatment machinery. This is not surprising, seeing that our club wielding, cave-dwelling ancestors already tried their hand (or should I rather say claw) at winemaking back in the spry 4000 BC’s. The oldest known winery is located in the “Areni-1” cave in the Vayots Dzor Province of Armenia. This winery, which is over six thousand years old, contains a wine press, fermentation vats, jars, and cups. Archaeologists also found grape seeds and vines of the species Vitis vinifera. Gravity was all the rage before pumps were designed, but there is a refreshing new push towards using gravity again in modern cellars.
Wine treatment was also not left behind. Where in the past, winemakers had to deal inventively with maladies such as high alcohol, volatile acidity, Brettanomyces-taint etc., the advent of reverse osmosis and spinning cones offers cost effective solutions.
Sir Francis Bacon said in 1597: “Knowledge is power.” Science allows humans to empower themselves. And to feel smarter. If you don’t believe this, just think of how smart you usually are after a few glasses of wine…
Bernard Mocke is a technical consultant for Oenobrands.