We’ve known for years—since forming the germ theory of disease—that little critters like bacteria and viruses and fungi can affect us negatively. More recently, research into the microbiome, the host of microbes that live on and inside us, has shown how their behavior can affect us in more fundamental ways, from our weight to our mood, and help make us who we are. Alongside these discoveries, it makes sense to look at how microbes work on other parts of the world that humans interact with.
The latest discovery, says the New York Times, reporting on new research, comes from the world of viniculture. It turns out that the microbes that live on grapes vary from place-to-place, and it may be these microbes that give different regional wines their distinctive flavors.
Microbes are deposited on the grape surface by wind, insects and people, and may fail or flourish because of specific local conditions such as the way the grape vines are trained. And there may be genetic affinities between particular microbial species and each variety of grape, the researchers say.
…These microbes certainly affect the health of grapes as they grow — several of them adversely — and they are also incorporated into the must, the mashed grapes that are the starting material of winemaking. Several of the natural fungi that live on grapes have yeastlike properties, and they and other microbes could affect the metabolism of the ensuing fermentation. (Several species of microbes are available commercially for inoculation along with yeast into wine fermentations.)
The researchers showed that different regions’ microbes do vary in a reliable way, but they can’t say for sure if this is the reason different wine-making regions have different flavors. If so, though, says io9, your next wine tour may seem a little more like a trip to a lab:
If the results hold true, the research has strong implications for improving grape and wine quality. Winemakers, for example, could possibly tailor their vineyard treatments, farming practices and wine-fermentation management to promote or discourage the growth of different fungal and bacterial communities. The work could also extend to other agricultural products, such as fresh fruits and produce, in which different microbial communities are associated with spoilage and shelf life.
More from Smithsonian.com: