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Synthetically Crafted Wine Aromas: Alice Feirings Worst Nightmare?

perfume1You’ve just popped open a bottle of Albariño, and as you bring the glass slowly to your nose, you’re immediately knocked over by expressive aromas of fresh cut grass and minerals. If you’re verbose, like many wine lovers tend to be, you may even create a long supermarket list of aromas that come to mind such as slate, lemongrass and vanilla essence. The question, however, is how did you register those cut grass and mineral aromas if they weren’t sitting right in the glass? How does your mind grasp that what your smelling is the same as when you walked outside barefoot across your freshly cut lawn after a brief spring shower? (Flickr photo by hey hey c)

According to Luca Turin, a biophysicist of smell and the author of “Perfumes: The Guide“, and the subject of Chandler Burr’s 2003 book “The Emperor of Scent“, there are two contemporary theories on the way we perceive scent.

  1. What you smell is based on its molecular shape. The molecule binds with the protein through attraction, and consequently through this interaction, creates a distinct aroma.
  2. What you smell is based on molecular vibration. Each molecule vibrates at a specific frequency which directly relates to a specific smell.

Interestingly, albeit a widely held belief that it was the shape of the molecule dictates the aroma, when Luca conducted tests based on this theory, he could NOT find two molecules with almost identical shapes that gave off the same aroma. However, he did find that when two molecules gave off the same vibrational frequency, they also gave off the same perceived aroma.

What does this mean? Beyond the simple fact that all of your senses, beyond your ears, may relay on vibrational frequency (a very interesting and cool notion), this theory may offer some intriguing options for winemakers in the future. As Luca has discovered in his research with perfumes, one doesn’t actually need the element to create the aroma, you only need a molecule with the same vibrational frequency. Put another way, let’s say you’re a zany winemaker that is itching to add some some funky aromas to your wine and are willing to use technology to do it. And one day, you smell a rare East Asian flower at a chic flower shop, grown on the steep cliffs in the Himalayas. Having fallen in love with the aroma, you are now determined to add it to your young whites. However, getting your hands on this flower is difficult enough, but to then plant it in your vineyards and hope that it will show in your wines is a rather steep gamble. But if you knew its molecular vibration, today you could synthetically create it and add it directly to your wine.

Let’s keep in mind that we are already mucking with the wines we make. Whether we’re speaking of chapitalization, synthetic yeast strains to impart various aromas, wood chips or mega purple, winemakers are taking great liberties to fashion the perfect wine.

But let’s be clear, I am neither a scientist nor a winemaker, but our man Luca has brought to the table a fascinating idea: could a winemaker synthetically craft the bouquet of their wine? And if so, is this a good idea, or are we perpetuating the evil modern wine empire that Alice Feiring is so arduously fighting against?

Please watch this video taken from the Ted Talks website featuring Luca Turin and let us know your thoughts!

Cheers,

Gabriella Opaz

Update: Philip James from Snooth has suggested another article regarding Lucas Turin’s theory that I would advice checking out.

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  • Bill

    Having read the latest Feiring book, I consider myself firmly in her camp as it relates to the artificial means by which wine is being “crafted”, not as an expression of the terroir, but as a means to curry “Parker points”. I am against the trend to “Franken-wines” or the “global style” or whatever one chooses to call the ridiculous attempts to satisfy the palate of ONE MAN. Let's go back to basics, especially in the US, and first figure out what grapes should be planted where. Some of that is being done, but as vineyard acreage continues to expand, the idea of terroir is being sacrificed to the artificial machinations of the UC Davis educated winemakers.Sorry for the rant, and yes, my comments are off the top generalizations. This is one topic that definitely gets me going. Once again, let's go back to the basics. . . earth, sun, rain and the innate skill of the producer, from planting in the right place to the final product. Finally, I do recommend Alice Feiring's latest book, even to those of you who are Parker fans. Her take no prisoner mentality and commitment are refreshing, and, in the small world of wine writing, quite courageous. Reading her book really makes me look forward to first Opaz book. :-)

  • http://www.snooth.com Philip James

    Gabriella – fantastic post. As a former Chemist, but also as a Turin fan – I was pretty happy to stumble across this today!Personally I think that, so long as its fairly disclosed, winmakers should be allowed to use what they want to craft the wine that they want. If a consumer wants a wine thats organic / biodynamic / actually tastes of terroir, then they can go seek that out.

  • gabriellaopaz

    Hey Bill and Philip!Thanks for commenting, as I was hoping this might stir up some thought provoking discussion. In this post, although I didn't voice my opinion, I find myself siding with Philip on this. However, I am very sympathetic to your argument Bill, as I am purist at heart, seeking out natural foods and products whenever I can, but I do believe in the right of choice. Living in a country that suffered under Franco's dictatorship for 40 years, I can't help but want to support an individual's right to make their own decision. Do I like chemically manipulated wines, yes, I have enjoyed some highly manipulated wines in my life, but this is not a trend that I want the future of winemaking to support. I will continue to support green winemaking practices and the slow food movement, but in the same breath, I will also hold dear the values of creativity, ingenuity, innovation and independent thought.As for an Opaz book, Ryan has been pushing me to start the first page, but we'll see. With so many projects sitting on our desks currently, the Intro may have to wait a few years yet ;-)

  • Bill

    Philip and Gabriella, Winemakers can do what they want with their grapes, I've got no argument with that. The problem is that winemakers are not required to “fairly disclose” the manufacturing process involved in creating these wines. To me, there is something philosophically wrong with using tricks like reverse osmosis and micro oxygenation to tamper with the wine. If the wine label was required to list the ingredients as well as the processes that went into the final product, that might provide clues as to the real nature of a bottle. We, the consumer would ultimately benefit. One would hope so. I also truly value “creativity, ingenuity, innovation and independent thought”. It would be my contention that the slavish attention to creating wines to satisfy one man's palette, generating Parker points to increase sales volume is not demonstative of these adjectives. It is the efforts of those artisans who respect the traditional methods and seek to improve upon them through natural means that are the true innovators. Let the debate continue!

  • http://www.catavino.net Ryan Opaz

    Just to be clear “micro oxidization” is the small process that happens if you leave a wine in an oak barrel, only instead your making it happen in Stainless steel. Often this “evil” is over used and not really understood. So I then want to know, what do you think of dying your wines with Megapurple? Probably don't like it, but centuries wines have been died with “megapurple” without the brand name: Alicante Bouschet – Used to dye wines that were too light. Or Chapitalization? Without that we have a huge chunk of “classic wines” tossed out of what we can choose to drink. Or maybe your right on the disclosure point. I mean Vermouth, is highly manipulated, and a legitimate style of wine, that we drink often. Though it's blended with herbs to add flavors, so would wines blended with artificial flavors qualify as Vermouths?Complicated questions