French scientists try fine wine that ages in space

It tastes like rose petals. It smells like a campfire. It glows with a burnt-orange hue. What is it? A bottle of 5000 euros Petrus Pomerol wine that spent a year in space.

Scientists in Bordeaux are analyzing a dozen bottles of the precious liquid – along with 320 vines of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon – which returned to Earth in January after a stay aboard the International Space Station.

They announced their preliminary impressions on Wednesday – mainly that weightlessness did not ruin the wine and it seemed to stimulate the vines.

Organizers say it is part of a long-term effort to make plants on earth more resistant 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 unique tasting this month, 12 connoisseurs tasted one of the space-traveling wines and blindly tasted it along with a bottle from the same vintage that had stayed in a cellar.

A special pressure device opened the bottles frequently at the Institute for Wine and Vine Research in Bordeaux. The flavors sniffed solemnly, stared and eventually sipped.

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

Alcohol and glass are normally banned on the International Space Station, so each bottle was packed in a special steel cylinder during the trip.

At a news conference on Wednesday, Gaume said the experiment focused on studying the lack of gravity – which “creates a huge stress on all living species” – on wine and vines.

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

Jane Anson, a wine expert and author of the Decanter wine publication, said that the wine that remained on earth tasted “a little younger than what has been in space.”

Chemical and biological analysis of the wine’s aging process can enable researchers to find a way to artificially age fine vintages, says Dr Michael Lebert, a biologist at the Friedrich-Alexander University of Germany who was consulted about the project.

The vines – 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 scientists have decided why, Lebert said it could help scientists develop stronger vines on Earth – and pave the way for grape growing and winemaking in space.

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

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

Private investors helped fund the project, which the researchers hope can continue on additional space missions. The cost was not disclosed.

For the average earthworm, the main question is: How does cosmic wine taste?

“For me, the difference between space and earth wine … it was not easy to define,” says Franck Dubourdieu, a Bordeaux-based agronomist and oenologist who specializes in wine and winemaking studies.

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

“The one who had remained on earth for me was still a little more closed, a little more tannic, a little younger. And the one that had been up in space, the tannins had softened, the side of more floral aromas came out, “said Anson.

But whether the vintage was space-flying or terrestrial, she said, “They were both beautiful.”