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Synthetically Crafted Wine Aromas: Alice Feiring’s Worst Nightmare?

You’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?

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 manually manipulating 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 Spanish or Portuguese 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?

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