Posted: Jul 22, 2017
Ava Winery wants to re-create drinks in the lab, including some chemically identical to expensive old wines. Will it work?
The most fascinating wine project I’ve come across this year has no need for vineyards, barrels, or,a winery. It doesn’t even use grapes. If you believe what the people behind the project say, they could be on the brink of challenging everything that people hold dear about wine.
Though they don’t quite put it this way, Ava Winery could be as disruptive in its field as fellow West Coast tech businesses such as Airbnb, Amazon or Uber. Founded in 2015 by a pair of biotechnologists and a sommelier, the San Francisco start-up has spent the past two years developing a way to re-create wines “molecule by molecule”, using flavour molecules, sugars, acids and ethanol derived from natural sources.
According to co-founder Alec Lee, the project began in a San Francisco restaurant. “There was a bottle of Chateau Montelena 1973 on the wall, behind glass,” Lee tells me on the phone from the company’s headquarters. With a price tag north of $10,000, this Californian chardonnay (which beat the best of Burgundy in the famous 1976 Judgment of Paris blind tasting that helped put California on the world wine map) was way out of the reach of Lee and his business partner Mardonn Chua. “But what if we could just identify all its components and recreate the experience ourselves? We already had access to a lab. We could make the experience accessible.”
For an industry accustomed to hiding its promiscuous use of technology – from mechanical harvesters and alcohol reduction machines to pesticides and additives – behind flowery talk of terroir, the idea of making wine in a lab is heretical. But, if Lee is to be believed, it’s far from impossible. The company plans to release its first wines – a sweet sparkler based on Moscato d’Asti, a pair of reds and a dry white – later this year.
Even more controversially, Ava’s founding idea – to re-create famous old wines that, in Lee’s words, are “chemically and empirically identical” to the originals – while not currently a priority, is still part of the company’s plans. The problem, for the time being, is “regulatory” – although Lee says there’s no issue of copyright when it comes to the liquid itself. “There doesn’t seem to be any way for brand owners to stop it, they don’t have ownership of the molecular profile,” Lee says. “They have ownership of the trademarks, but this isn’t a counterfeit business, the pitch is not to trick consumers they’re buying the real thing, the pitch is to have the same experience at a lower price.”
For now, it’s hard not to be a little sceptical about some of Ava’s claims. While Lee is confident that Ava will reach the point where the molecular blueprints for their creations will be so accurate a tasting won’t be required to verify they’re on the right track, he admits that having sommelier Joshua Decolongon on board has helped clarify what he calls, “some opaque relationships that aren’t clear in the data”.
Could it be that the secrets of great wine remain a mystery, even to the whizz kids of biotechnology?I hope so. I can’t help feeling that we’d lose a little of the magic of wine – its connection to place and time – if we could simply conjure it up to order from a recipe.
But another part of me can’t help but be excited. For one thing, there are potential environmental benefits: according to Lee, harnessing fructose or sucrose from corn instead of grapes could result in a tenfold reduction in water use compared to a coventional bottle. “The molecule is identical, but corn is a much more efficient crop,” he says.
Then there are the aesthetic possibilities. Ava’s mooted recreations are one side of this: drinking a cheap replica of a super expensive wine such as Château Latour may not be quite the same as tasting the real thing, but, like looking at a postcard or print of a favourite painting, it could be better than not having any experience of it all. Then there’s the potential to make wines, incorporating, as Lee says, flavours that “can’t be found in grapes at all”, paving the way for Ferran Adrià-like creativity. We’ve had molecular gastronomy. Are we ready for molecular oenology?
Six aromatic wines – and their chemical compounds
Zero-G Zweigelt, Wagram Austria 2014 (£12.95, flagshipwines.co.uk)
Rotundone is the aroma compound that gives this supple Austrian red (and many a syrah) its black peppery seasoning. You can also find it, expressed more as white pepper, in the same producer’s refreshing Grüner Velltiner dry white (also sold by Flagship).
Torres Viña Esmeralda, Catalunya, Spain 2016 (£7.50, Tesco)
A longstanding aromatic classic from the reliable Torres clan, this off-dry white blend features moscatel (Muscat) and gewürztraminer, both of which get their expressively floral character from the family of flavour compounds known as terpenes.
Brancott Terroir Series Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough, New Zealand 2016 (£10, Sainsbury’s)
This super clean and bright Kiwi sauvignon is full of the style’s classic green gooseberry and grassy pungency mixed with touch of smokiness – or, to put it another way, a mix of methoxypyrazine and thiol compounds.
Berry Bros & Rudd Good Ordinary Claret 2014 (£9.95, bbr.com)
Like sauvignon blanc, the red cabernet sauvignon grape contains both methoxypyranzines and thiol compounds that give this fine, drinkable, crunchy Bordeaux red its flavours of juicy ripe blackcurrants.
Paul Blanck Gewürztraminer, Alsace, France 2015 (£14.99, Waitrose)
The Ava Winery blog has a number of posts about flavour compounds found in wine, including one on rose oxide, part of the monoterpene class, and responsible for the characterisic rose and lychee notes in this gorgeous gewürztraminer.
CVNE Imperial Rioja Reserva 2010 (£17.99, The Co-op)
This typically complex, soft mature rioja from the excellent CVNE has a touch of blackcurrant, some tobacco leaf (maybe megastigmatrienone), a hint of vanilla (vanillin) and toasty spice (guaiacol or 4-methylguaiacol). It’s also delicious.
By David Williams
May 17, 2017
Source: The Guardian
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