Synthetic wine: travesty or breakthrough?

Young medical technicians working in laboratory

It was on a tour of the Napa Valley that he saw it: a bottle of wine hanging on a wall, valued at more than $11,000.00. “They wouldn’t let me try it,” says Mardonn Chua. “The way they were talking about it, it was the Holy Grail.”

Chua was looking at a bottle of Chateau Montelena Chardonnay 1973, a bottle from the famed 1976 Judgement of Paris tasting, and a piece of Californian history. Unimpressed, Chua thought to himself: “What if I made something similar in my lab?”

Chemistry detectives
Chua went to work on Monday and mentioned the idea to his colleague Alec Lee, with whom he was working on another project. Like Chua, Lee is also a biotechnology graduate. And so was born the idea of Ava Winery, a San Francisco-based start-up whose aim is to replicate famous wines. It’s already received an undisclosed amount of seed funding, though it’s looking for more.

Neither Lee nor Chua have a wine background. “We by no means profess to be wine experts, which is why we recruited a sommelier on our team,” says Lee. The sommelier wishes to remain anonymous, but Lee says he’s certified. In any case, Lee and Chua believe that creating synthetic wine is a chemistry problem, not a wine problem. Replicate the molecules, replicate the wine.

They combed the scientific literature for information on aromas and flavour. “Our next step was to buy as many molecules as we could, and mix them with water and alcohol to see if we got anything remotely resembling a wine,” says Lee. The first results weren’t promising. “It was a monstrosity,” Lee admits freely.

But they began to hone in on the flavours and aromas that are important. Lee believes there are compounds hitching a ride that don’t contribute anything to the final wine. “There’s been a great deal of research done on the odour activity thresholds of a great many of these molecules,” he explains. “As long as we can correlate them back to the concentrations in the wine, we can discard a great deal of the molecules. For others, we know they have negative impacts on the flavour of the wine. Do we want to add them in? In some cases yes, in some cases no.”

The next step will be to replicate a wine; as each wine has its own chemical composition, they need a specific model to work from. The chosen wine, which they hope to sell commercially, is the 1992 Dom Pérignon. The hope is that they can replicate enough of the wine’s components that “the vast majority of the population won’t be able to distinguish it,” says Lee. “Ultimately, the real test is: Can we give it to people blind, and does it pass muster? That’s where the proof will be empirical.”

The project is not about counterfeiting. “A counterfeit is explicitly something that is not the original, but is being passed off as the original. That’s not what we’re doing,” he said, adding that they aren’t going to put Dom Pérignon’s label on it, but just say the wines are chemically identical.

But what about the role of terroir and provenance – concepts central to wine identity? Lee says that any story about food that’s not about the molecules is simply “mythology”. “The way I’ve thought about it is that there is the one and only Mona Lisa,” he says. “But even the replica tells the story of the original. That’s what our wines will do – tell the story of the original.”

Lisa Grossman, an editor at New Scientist magazine, tried one of their early examples, a synthetic Moscato d’Asti, paired alongside a Ruffino 2014. “The smell was the first thing that gave the synthetic stuff away: while the Ruffino smelled grapey and fruity, the synthetic wine smelled astringent, more like cleaning alcohol or plastic,” Grossman wrote. “One of our co-workers described it as the smell of those inflatable sharks you take to the pool.”

When the article is mentioned, Lee sounds exasperated, saying they’d clearly told New Scientist that the wine was a work in progress. He becomes even more impatient when the criticisms made in the article are raised, particularly that it will be difficult to replicate the work done by the microbes that ferment the grapes. “We’re not taking the molecules and mixing them with water,” says Lee. “There are some processes we need to use, but anybody with a chemistry background could imagine how it’s done.”

Which is the big question: Can something as complex as wine be replicated?

Yes, no and maybe

“I think it’s possible,” says Dr Bill Simpson. “The potential to do this has been around for quite a long time.”

Dr Simpson is the founder of Cara Technology, which has developed stabilised flavour standards – capsules full of chemicals – used to educate tasters to recognise individual flavours and aromas. He says it’s relatively easy to identify the chemicals in any product by using chromatography, a process that separates components and which allows researchers to identify all the chemicals that have aromas. “Take a red wine. You might find 1,000 compounds, but in fact there are really only 100 that are important for the aroma of the wine,” he explains. “Most of the flavours are invisible to humans. We’re probably only responding to 10% of the components at the concentrations found in wine.”

Once it’s clear which chemicals are most significant, “you’ve got the recipe. When it comes to these experiments in wine, they’ll add in some acidity, some sugar, some alcohol, so it’s a base. You then add the odour chemicals on top, and you’ve now got a colourless glass of water that has exactly the same flavour compounds as you’d find in real wine.”

Dr Simpson points to the work of German chemist Professor Dr Peter Schieberle, famous for getting his PhD students to pick a supermarket product and then replicate it. “Professor Schieberle has led the way. In our labs we’ve done rather the same thing with beer. We can create synthetic beer – it’s fun.”

So could synthetic fine wine become a reality? Not so fast, says Dr Simpson. “I can make a mixture from pure chemicals and you can say that it reminds you of a particular wine,” he says. “However, reminding you is different from ‘actually is’ that wine.” He says synthetic wine will be more like an Elvis Presley impersonator. “You know it’s not the real thing, but you can still enjoy it.”

Another problem is that fine reds become so complex as they age, that replicating them is beyond contemporary chemistry. “In very mature, complex red wines, you have a complex network of polyphenol components,” explains Dr Simpson. “The degree of oxygen that’s introduced during maturation affects how they join together.” The polyphenols create a jelly-like network that traps flavours, so the wine’s compounds aren’t so much dissolved in the wine, as trapped in the jelly. “This whole area of polyphenol chemistry is a nightmare,” he adds. “If you measure the different polyphenols, you will find at least 400.”

Professor Dr Hildegarde Heymann from the University of California, Davis, agrees. Dr Heymann, a sensory science expert, says there are many wine chemistry problems still to solve. “One problem is astringency – we don’t know what’s in tannins.”

And many of the molecules found in wine have never been synthesised. “There are still compounds in wine that are important to the outcome of wine, that we cannot see,” she says, such as the thiols found in Sauvignon Blanc. “When I was going through university, all thiols were seen as a negative, but it turns out that some of them are a positive in minute concentrations. That’s changed how we see things.”

Beyond that, there’s another, more intangible problem – reverse engineering typically produces replicas that are so inhumanly perfect, they’re perceived as kitsch, an effect that Italian writer Umberto Eco dubbed ‘hyperreality’.

“I was part of a beer study, where one of my colleagues [created a synthetic beer],” says Professor Heymann. “We had a group of panelists taste it, who didn’t know that we had created it out of chemicals. We asked them how much they liked it, and a lot of people said that it was ‘soulless’.”

Professor Heymann sees other problems ahead for anyone wanting to replicate wine. “Can you legally call it ‘wine’? Wine has to be fermented. Will you have to call it ‘flavoured wine’? There are already flavoured wines on the market, and they sell for very little.” She says she doesn’t see how anybody could make money out of it.

Perhaps there is one market waiting to happen – a market in replica fine wines for the educational market. Right now, wine professionals have few opportunities to taste the great wines, as they’re simply too expensive. If Lee and Chua could overcome some of the chemistry problems and create replicas of the benchmark wines, there would surely be wine lovers and wine students queuing up to buy them.

In Dr Simpson’s opinion, if the founders of Ava Winery want to replicate fine wines, they might have a better chance if they took some basic red wine and added in components until they got the formula right. “To be honest, it’s just a question of balance,” he says.

Indeed, there’s a company doing this. Colorado-based Replica wines has a team of scientists, a master sommelier and several winemakers. According to Popular Science, the company uses base wines sourced from California and Oregon, and then tinkers with them to create wines that mimic popular brands. Their promise is that the wines are 90% similar to the originals, while retailing for 20% to 40% less. The wines were released for sale on 1 June this year.

Except that Chua and Lee have no interest in this method, because they don’t want to use grape material. They have something bigger in mind.

Big ambitions

“The reason we’re starting with wine is because it’s a technically less challenging problem than a molecular reconstruction of other foods,” says Lee.

Lee believes that industrial farming is bad for the planet, and things are only going to get worse as the population increases. He sees replicating wine as the first step in being able to synthesise all food. “Wine is particularly socially relevant. It’s been such a dearly held component of society for so long, that if we can reproduce it and people are willing to consume it and enjoy the product, it will legitimise the food technology revolution going on.”

A gust of laughter sweeps down the phone from California, as Professor Heymann considers the idea of replacing food with chemicals to preserve the natural world. She says that, apart from genetically modified bacteria, there’s only one place to get the chemicals from: “Petroleum”.

Still, the Ava Winery project is an interesting one. At the very least, they may be able to advance the understanding of wine chemistry – and unlock the secrets of great wine.

Felicity Carter

This article first appeared in Meininger’s Wine Business International, Issue 3, 2016.