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Can Wine Made Without Grapes Match the Real Thing?

A San Francisco start-up is trying to create synthetic wine—just by mixing together the right ingredients

A glass of real bubbly. (Sam Howzit via Flickr.com, CC BY 2.0)
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Winemakers and wine aficionados can take a deep calming breath after reading that headline: The answer is "no," experts can't make a synthetic wine without growing grapes first, at least not yet. 

Even though experts have swirled, sniffed and chemically analyzed vintages to help create a list of compounds found in wine, mixing those ingredients together hasn't yet proven to be the same as the real thing. Yet that's not stopping a San Francisco start-up, Ava Winery, from trying to "turn water into wine," reports Chris Baraniuk for New Scientist.

Founders Mardonn Chua and Alec Lee first got hooked on the idea of blending compounds to create wine when visiting a winery in the Napa Valley of California in 2015. They saw a bottle of the wine Chateau Montelena chardonnay, famed as one of the Californian wines to beat out French white Burgundies in a blind taste test on May 24, 1976, an event that upset the wine world and heralded the rise of California's wines.  

"I was transfixed by this bottle displayed on the wall," Chua tells New Scientist. "I could never afford a bottle like this, I could never enjoy it. That got me thinking."

The duo wanted to see if they could hack wine. That is, instead of going through the lengthy process of growing grapes, crushing them juice, fermenting their sugars into ethanol and (depending on the type) aging the wine, could they just mix up the right profile and create a good mimic? 

In a post on Medium, Chua describes his first attempt using ingredients found on the shelves of his local brew store and nearby Safeway grocery. The supplies included tartaric acid, malic acid, tannin powder, ethanol in the form of Everclear and sucrose, as well as vegetable glycerin to improve the mouthfeel. He also added flavor compounds such as limonene, a compound with a citrusy aroma and ethyl hexanoate, one that smells like pineapple. After a weekend spent making 15 different concoctions, Chua came up with a creation that he deemed "not a good wine yet, but it was acceptable enough to drink." More importantly, he wasn't discouraged.

The company's synthetic wine is much more sophisticated than that first attempt. Baraniuk reports that the team used specialized techniques such as gas chromatography mass spectrometry (a way to identify individual chemical components of a mixture) to analyze Chardonnay, champagne and Pinot Noir. They deduced that the proportions of amino acids, sugars, flavor and odor compounds, and other molecules to include. They then had a sommelier weigh in on their creations. 

Now, their website lists a replica of 1992 Dom Pérignon Champagne available for $50 (the real thing sells for more than $150). 

The start-up has also tried to mimic a Moscato d'Asti. Staff at New Scientist tried an early version and apparently this one isn't quite ready for retail. Editor Lisa Grossman writes:

We did a blind taste test between the synthetic wine and a Ruffino 2014 wine from Italy. The smell was the first thing that gave the synthetic stuff away: while the Ruffino smelled grapey and fruity, the synthetic wine smelled astringent, more like cleaning alcohol or plastic. One of our co-workers described it as the smell of those inflatable sharks you take to the pool. Not very appealing.

The wine experts Baraniuk contacted were understandably skeptical. One called the idea "nonsense." A not insubtantial portion of wine's appeal comes from the connection it has to unique lands and climes. This terroir has an effect on how people percieve high-end wines. 

Furthermore, even basic red wines might carry more than 1,000 compounds, according to Compound Interest, a website that explores the chemicals in substances people encounter daily. Wines owe their flavor and aroma to compounds that make up just 0.1 percent of that total. Those molecules include some from wine grapes' skin that morph as the wine ages. Other compounds are created by the microbes fermenting the wine. Not all will have a huge impact on the flavor of the finished product, but together they contribute to wines' complexity.

The sheer volume of chemicals involved means that Ava Winery has a lot to consider when they make their imitations. But French winemaker Julien Miquel did say that he could imagine people being interested. "There would be some curiosity on how close they could get," he tells New Scientist

That curiosity is sure to drive a few sales, as long as future bottles avoid that plastic pool shark smell. 

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