Thanks to poor yields due to extreme weather, global wine production recently fell to the lowest levels in 56 years. While it becomes increasingly clear that climate change will cause major changes in food production, this year’s wine harvests have been a reminder that the world’s most famous wine regions could also continue to be adversely affected, potentially rendering them unable to produce the cherished wines for which they are known.
As engineered meat alternatives have begun to make their way into grocery stores and restaurants, wine made using similar techniques may not be far behind. The San Francisco–based company Ava Winery is attempting to make synthetic wines—no grapes involved—that could be more environmentally friendly and environmentally stable while also offering a luxury good at a lower cost, though representatives weren’t quite ready to talk target prices. Ava attempts to replicate existing high-quality wines, a process that starts with a base of water and ethanol and then adds acids, amino acids, sugars, and organic compounds.
As an enthusiast, I prefer my wines grown in a vineyard and aged in dark, underground cask rooms. The idea of a wine generated in a lab seems a bit … unromantic, for starters. Nonetheless, the potential is intriguing. If Ava succeeds, it wouldn’t just (just!) allow high-priced wines to be made more cheaply. It could also re-create aged wines, including those of famed vintages. “The technology is like a copier. It can copy a new photograph or an old one. It doesn’t matter. The process is the same,” says co-founder Alec Lee. The idea of being able to drink affordable copies of Bordeaux first growths was enough to whet my appetite.
The possibility of synthetic wine comes at a time when the industry is actually moving away from the use of technological manipulation, in part a reaction to the fruit-driven “international style” that arose in the ’90s. The international style refers to the fact that thanks to scientific research, it became possible for most wine regions to produce rich, easy-drinking, similar-tasting wines. Critics of the style feel that it sacrifices terroir, the unique character a wine derives from the sum of its climate, soil, and other localized factors. Natural wine represents the further reaches of this turn toward preserving terroir by strict minimization of technological and chemical interventions both in the vineyard and the winery. Among other things, natural winemakers use whatever yeast is present in the vineyard’s air, reduce or eliminate the use of sulfites and other additives, and generally seek to be as hands off as possible during the entire production process….