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The Wine Industry Thinks It’s Getting Us Drunk Too Quickly

As a fix, wine scientists are searching for a wild yeast species that will produce less alcoholic beverages

(Photo: Krueger)
smithsonian.com

The wine industry has a problem. Over the past years, the alcoholic content in wine has steadily been climbing, from 13 percent to, in some cases, 17 percent, Scientific American reports. Some might wonder: Ok, so what's the problem? But for anyone who want to enjoy a drawn-out tasting menu at a fancy restaurant, a glass of wine at a business lunch or a bottle (or two) in the evening, this alcoholic boost can change a relaxing buzz into full-blown intoxication, complete with a hangover the next day or a sloppy, post-lunch nap in the office.

As wine consumers, we sort of have ourselves to blame for this shift. Wines are getting boozier because our tastes are shifting. These days, we prefer deeper wines with bright, fruity notes. Those flavors just happen to be indicative of alcohol content, SciAm points out, as they require letting the grapes ripen longer, which produces more sugar to fuel the booze-producing yeasts' fermentation party.  

So are those of us who like wine doomed to drunkenness? Not necessarily, scientists say. The search is on for a wild yeast species that will produce the same ripe, complex flavors but without the side effects. Here's SciAm on that hunt: 

This idea has been tried before, but no one had found a wild yeast that could lower alcohol without hurting quality. In the new attempt researchers began by creating a panel of 50 strains of wild yeasts from 40 species collected from grapes, samples from fermenting wines, fermented food or soil. They then subjected the panel to a battery of tests to see whether the wild yeasts could lower alcohol contents in finished wine. They inoculated standardized wine yeast chow with their experimental organisms and waited several days. They then added S. cerevisiae to finish the job, because wild yeasts can't consume all the sugar alone. Of the 50, only four strains produced less alcohol than S. cerevisiae alone did, and of those, one strain ofMetschnikowia pulcherrima isolated from wine grapes produced the least.

So far, SciAm continues, that strain can produce a 0.9 percent alcohol drop in Chardonnay and a 1.6 percent decrease in Shiraz. Using the new yeast, the researchers say, does not sacrifice the quality of those beverages. In fact, it could wind up producing wines with new flavors and interesting complexities, they told SciAm. We'll toast to that. 

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