Winemaking is always an exercise in uncertainty. You don't really know just what the wine will taste like until the very end of the process, which is sometimes decades long. A new technique, however, could help predict what wine will taste like before it's even made. Image: Africa Studio / Shutterstock
A paper out last week in mBio from researchers at the University of California Davis details an extensive survey undertaken of over 700 different Napa and Sonoma wines, beginning in 2011. Before the fermentation process began -- when the future wine was just grape juice -- the researchers DNA sequenced the juice to identify the mix of microbes present within it. They then compared those results with analyses of their finished wines and found that they were able to link chemical compounds associated with flavour and taste to the microbial juice profiles.
Senior author of the paper David Mills of the University of California Davis' Mills Laboratory said that this information suggested a new avenue for how we describe the tastes of wine. "Wineries often communicate to their consumers via vintage descriptions in terms of vineyard location, combined with specific weather and grape qualities of that particular harvest," Mills told Gizmodo. "Perhaps the microbial 'vintage' profile might be similarly discussed in the future."
The information isn't just descriptive, however. Mills also suggested that the microbial profiles could eventually help winemakers in replicating particularly good vintages or, alternately, avoiding bad ones.
"By tracking this routinely, winemakers might be able to score 'good' vs. 'bad' microbes associated with grapes that might influence their wine," Mills said. "Winemakers might change things ahead of time if they see microbes associated with bad outcomes or manipulate vineyard conditions to get the right regionally-linked microbial consortia on their grapes."
Of course, the microbial profile of juice is one of many factors that shapes a wine's overall flavour. Still, it puts us one step closer to untangling just what it is that gives a good wine such a unique taste.