Out-of-this-world wine

When I read that 12 bottles of French wine and hundreds of snippets of grapevines spent the past year in space, allegedly for agricultural research, I nearly dropped my glass. The wine bottles, unopened and sealed in steel cylinders returned last week via SpaceX’s Dragon capsule and splashed down in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Florida, of all places.

How could this happen? For the French in particular, the character and quality of wine is inextricably linked to Mother Earth. Wine lovers use the term terrior (land), the soil and climate where the grapes are grown, to describe its character.

So, in the midst of all kinds of tragedies here on earth, why are we sending wine into orbit?

In a system with its roots in the 15th century, the French designate their wines under the system known as Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC), which refers to where the grapes are grown. The soil where vines grow is so important that some AOC designations refer to very precise parcels. Wines with the La Romanée AOC designation, for example, can only come from a single 2.1-acre plot in Burgundy. Once picked and pressed, fine wine is often aged in cellars underground — deep beneath the soil — where the conditions are perfect, of course.

So what could we possibly learn from wine that spent time 400 kilometers above earth flying 28,000 km/h? And should we possibly care?

It turns out that climate change is changing wine. Until the end of the 20th century, growing conditions for wine — the soil and climate — were fairly stable, except for the year-over-year variations that resulted in some vintages being better than others. However, in the 1990s, researchers began to notice that accelerating changes in the climate were impacting winemaking. Since then, the planet has been getting warmer and dryer and grapes are now ripening earlier. These shifts in the environment are altering the levels of alcohol, acidity, and even the color of wine. Winemakers are having to change the yeast they are using and many centuries-old techniques.

It gets worse. Some varietals are now so threatened that they face extinction. Certain regions appear particularly hard hit. According to researchers, without action, in 40 years, Bordeaux wines as we know them could disappear altogether.

The wine-in-space study, conducted by Luxembourg-based Space Cargo Unlimited, is intended to unearth ways to make vines more robust and resilient — and resistant to climate change — by stressing them in a zero-gravity environment and to higher levels of radiation. The research extends beyond wine. What they learn from the space grapes may translate to other agricultural crops as well.

A few of the bottles, which include merlot and cabernet sauvignon, will be opened in late February and tasted by a group of wine experts. The rest will be studied by researchers.

Given the stakes, I have come around on the urgent need for this research. It is important work and I wish the scientists Godspeed. We’re counting on you for years of happiness right here on terra firma.

Danilo Diazgranados is an investor, collector, and lover of fine wines and a member of the prestigious Confrérie des Chevaliers du Tastevin, a fraternity of Burgundy wine enthusiasts.

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