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What’s changed in wine science?

By Jamie Goode |  June 10 2021

What's new in wine science
Photography by Shutterstock

As the third edition of his landmark book goes on sale, Jamie Goode asks what’s changed in wine science in the years since the first edition was published in 2005.

On June 2, 2021, the third edition of my Wine Science book was published, following the original (2005) and the second edition (2014). 

So what has changed in the 16 years since I first set out to chronicle the world of science as it applies to wine?

Here, we need to make a distinction between technology and science. As the scientific understanding changes, practice often follows, and this is expressed in the different technology used in the winery and vineyard. So strictly speaking a technological innovation isn’t ‘science’, but it is based on science, and so it’s hard to tease the two fully apart. 

Under the vineyard surface

I’d say the biggest change has been the way that we view what goes on under the surface in the vineyard. Here we have an increasing understanding of the role of soils in wine quality, but also a realization that soil microlife is much more complex than previously thought, and affects the way that vines perform. The science of soil life is an area of intense study, and it has led to a new third way of approaching viticulture called regenerative farming. This brings in approaches from organics as well as scientific insights to help create a more fully sustainable way of growing vines that protects the life of the soil. It’s one reason that herbicides as a tool for weed control are on borrowed time: they are really bad for soil microlife.

One huge change in the wine world over the last 16 years is how “natural” wine has escaped the tiny niche it used to exist in, and become more mainstream. This raises questions around the science of making wines without sulfites. Organic and biodynamic viticulture has also grown enormously over this time, so efforts to find new solutions to pests and diseases are underway, because devoid of the full chemical toolkit, winegrowers need to find new ways of farming. One option is breeding vines for resistance, and work is well underway here to establish these new PIWI and ResDur varieties in commercial vineyards. The first wines are already on the market.

Wine science and the climate crisis

Climate chaos is a big issue for viticulture. When I wrote the first edition in 2005 I was hesitant about putting a chapter on global warming into the book, because for some of my readers this would have been seen as controversial. I even hedged some of the language so as not to upset readers who were climate change sceptics. Now, denial of the chaos that the climate is in as a result of human activity is seen as pretty fringe, fortunately. It impacts hugely on viticulture, because grape vines are extremely sensitive to small changes in temperature. If what we were dealing with were a gradual warming, then it would be possible to adapt, but while there are significant warming trends, there is also much more unpredictability. Floods, droughts, increased incidence of hail and frost, and unseasonal cold or hot weather make viticulture difficult and more expensive. This is now a major focus for the wine industry.

Microbiology has also moved on. After all, wine is made by microbes, but yeasts and bacteria don’t seem to get the attention they deserve. Since 2004 a lot of work has gone into microbes for winemaking. One notable area is the progress made with cultured lactic acid bacteria. We now know that these can have quite an effect on the sensory properties of wine, and this is another winemaking tool. Co-inoculation with both yeasts and specific partner strains of lactic acid bacteria is now a winemaking tool that is especially useful for making fruit-forward red wines: the results are impressive, and this removes a major risk period in winemaking, the gap between the completion of alcoholic fermentation and the start of malolactic, where it is difficult to protect wines by using sulfur dioxide, which would inhibit the lactic acid bacteria. Another major change has been the availability of cultured “wild” yeast species: this allows winemakers some of the sensory benefits of wild ferments, with fewer of the risks. 

Closing down the debate

The science of closures has progressed to the point that a noisy squabble has now died down. The search for alternatives to cork has become less frantic now that there are effective solutions for removing taint from technological corks (those made from cork, but manufactured from small granules, with or without other components), and there are also more effective ways to remove taint from natural cork, or to catch any tainted corks and remove them from the marketplace. Cork taint hasn’t completely gone away, but it is less of an issue. And alternatives such as screwcaps and synthetics have established their place in the market, without taking it over completely as many had predicted. The science of post-bottling wine development still remains imperfectly understood, but the closure wars are less dramatic than they used to be.

One chapter from the earlier editions that has not made it to the third is on wine and health. Wine contains alcohol, which is toxic. There is however an established body of medical literature showing a consistent “J-shaped curve” relationship between wine consumption and mortality, where moderate drinkers live longer than teetotallers and heavy drinkers. There are mechanisms that can explain this: while alcohol is carcinogenic, it is also protective against cardiovascular disease. Modest consumption raises the risk of cancers slightly, but the cardiovascular benefit wins, until consumption rises to the point that cancer risk edges it. The finding is widely reproduced even when socioeconomic and other confounders are controlled for. However, this area has now become highly politicised by public health bodies who are turning on drinking as a social evil, so I decided that even though there’s some very interesting science—and it is relevant to the wine industry—it’s a fraught area where scientists may not be able to speak as freely as they’d like. 

Finally, there’s been quite a lot of shifting in the cellar, with stainless steel and small oak making way for large format oak, concrete and even terracotta. The science of elevage is fascinating, and it’s a very interesting time to be following the world of wine with a view to wine science.

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