By Jonathan Cristaldi
In light of some news that should capture the imagination of science lovers, space nerds, and wine drinkers alike, let’s take a moment to raise a glass and celebrate the successful completion of NASA’s first-ever outer space wine experiment.
Twelve bottles of Bordeaux wine and 320 vine plants, half merlot and half Cabernet Sauvignon, were shot into space as part of a grand study to see how microgravity can affect the aging process of wine. They landed safely back on Earth at the end of January after a year in space orbiting the planet.
Among the players contributing to the biological research experiment are European startup Space Cargo Unlimited (SCU), NASA, the University of Bordeaux’s Institute of Vine and Wine Science, and privately-owned space delivery company Nanoracks.
You’d be forgiven for thinking this sounds like a frivolously complicated attempt to learn new ways to enhance the flavor or texture of wine, and in a way, it’s very possible the whole project may lead to that. However, the more pressing knowledge to be learned is how to adjust agricultural methods in the face of climate change. SCU chose grapevines for the trip specifically for their sensitivity. After having the vines exposed to severe biological stress in space, scientists can compare any of their mutations against wine and vines from the same batch that stayed on Earth. The idea, the hope, is that agriculturalists can learn how to grow more resilient food under stressed conditions here on Earth.
The mission’s chief scientific officer, Dr. Michael Lebert put it this way to Wine Spectator by email: “Combining wine, an ancient and mythological drink invented by man, with the ultra-technological and ever-accelerating space industry is a fascinating way to catch a glimpse into the future of wine while teaching us even more about how different outer space is to our life here on earth.”
NASA has strict rules about glass containers on the International Space Station and even stricter rules about alcohol, but after six years of lobbying, SCU CEO Nicolas Gaume finally convinced NASA of the scientific value attached. The challenge then is transporting the wine bottles into orbit and getting them all back in one piece. This is where Nanoracks comes in, providing the aluminum canisters and form-fitting foam pads to safely house each bottle for the arduous trip. Thankfully, both the wine and their containers returned from the trip in sound condition.
In the name of science, renowned Bordeaux oenologist Franck Dubourdieu will soon participate in an organoleptic wine tasting comparing the space wine and the Earth wine. The results of his findings are expected to be published sometime in March. It should be a wine tasting like no other.
Only red wines took the trip though, so if we want to learn how aging in space affects white wines, we’ll have to wait for the next research project.