TRANSFORMATIVE INNOVATIONS OF WINEMAKING-From Pottery to Synthetic Biology

Roger C. Bohmrich, Master of Wine
August 2019

Wine and winemaking are interwoven with the history of civilization. Indeed, they have been inseparable from the very beginning. As human beings left a nomadic existence and created settlements, the archaeological evidence shows that fermented beverages, once simply accidents of nature, were increasingly the consequence of deliberate human actions. Innovation such as this hinges on ingenuity. It involves creating or finding something new and, critically, active implementation to apply the invention or discovery in practical ways, typically through trial and error. Every tool or technique to turn grapes into wine, it could be said, was innovative at the outset. Which ones have been truly transformative?

The prerequisite to conduct fermentation of a liquid with a modicum of control is an impermeable container. At the inception, and for millennia to follow, an earthenware jar was that embryonic device. The story of innovation and wine is thus connected with the invention of pottery, which enabled systematic winemaking. This took place around 16,500 years ago in Japan; by 8000 BCE in the Early Neolithic, ovens replaced open fires in pottery making (Violatti, 2014). The oldest fermented beverage – made from wild grapes, rice, hawthorn and honey – is credited to Jiahu, China in the Yellow River basin and has been dated to 6600 to 7000 BCE (McGovern, 2003 & 2009). The fundamental innovation which made this ancient grog possible was a pottery jug (Fig.1).

Figure 1. Pottery jugs containing remains of the world’s first alcoholic beverage from Jiahu, China (courtesy of Z Juzhong, University of Science and Technology in China, and Henan Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology/Penn Museum).

Containers to ferment and hold wine have undergone many alterations. For millennia, terracotta vessels were the essential companion to wine. In Caucasia, as early as circa 6000 BCE, large bulbous jars were buried in the ground to help control the heat of fermentation. Known in Georgia as qvevri, these fermenters spread to other parts of the ancient world, retaining their basic shape and purpose whether known as pithoi in Greece or dolium in the Roman period. The clay jar we call an amphora came in many sizes and shapes (Fig. 2) and was developed by the Canaanites in the 4th millennium BCE (Butler & Heskett, 2012).

Figure 2. A variety of ancient amphorae. The pointed foot enabled them to be placed upright in sand or earth. National Museum of Archaeology, Tarragona, Spain.Photo https://penelope.uchicago.edu/~grout/encyclopaedia_romana/wine/amphorae.html.

A cousin of the jar held below ground, the amphora served as the essential means of storing, shipping and even aging ancient wines. The amphora was integral to wine commerce for thousands of years. The amphora and qvevri have been refashioned and are, if anything, experiencing a revival in a supporting role. Pottery may be taken for granted, but it is the most enduring innovation in the history of wine.

Large wooden wine vats were successors to earlier and smaller earthenware vessels. Wood was a preferred material for centuries. While challenging to maintain, wood vats are still prized by some of the most celebrated estates in the world such as First Growths Châteaux Margaux, Mouton Rothschild and Lafite Rothschild, or Domaine Faiveley in Burgundy (Fig. 3). The vat’s width-to-height ratio encourages a homogeneous temperature while the wood retains the heat of fermentation longer, favoring tannin extraction (Pontallier, 2012).

Figure 3. The new fermentation cellar of Domaine Faiveley featuring wood vats named “Le 38” in Nuits-Saint-Georges, opened in 2018. Photo Domaine Faiveley.

Built-in, thick-walled concrete vats can still be found in many cellars from the Rhône Valley to Mendoza, Argentina. More recently, free-standing concrete vats in unprecedented shapes such as those installed in 2013 at Château Prieuré Lichine in Margaux (Fig. 4) are finding fans who prize their natural temperature control and internal circulation.

Figure 4. Concrete vats in a tulip shape installed in 2013 at Château Prieuré Lichine in Margaux. Photo Château Prieuré Lichine.

The advent of refrigeration for winemaking in the 1940s was beyond question a monumental step forward. It transformed quality and allowed respectable wine to be made even in hot regions (AWRI). The adoption of stainless steel for tanks and equipment, which started in the 1960s, was significant as well, removing the risk of various metal-based instabilities and facilitating the truly clean wines modern drinkers take for granted. Today, stainless fermenters may be vertical or horizontal and come in myriad shapes and sizes. They may often have jackets or belts in which glycol flows to allow precise temperature regulation, now frequently controlled remotely by computer (Fig. 5). The marriage of temperature control and stainless steel tanks represented a major advance with global relevance.

Figure 5. Gleaming belted steel tanks in the cellars of First Growth Château Latour in Bordeaux. Photo by Alain Benoit, Deepix Bordeaux, courtesy of Château Latour.

In our times, before the fruit reaches a destemmer, press or tank, it is sorted to remove rotten grapes, leaves or insects. Hand sorting is a relatively new practice at many quality-minded wineries (Fig. 6); some may also have optical sorters (Fig. 7). These are refinements rather than revolutionary advances.

Figure 6. A vibrating table combined with hand sorting to remove leaves and imperfect berries at Château Palmer in Margaux. Photo Bloomberg.com.

Figure 7. An optical sorter uses a camera to screen individual berries and reject insects or any other undesirable fragments at Château Palmer in Margaux. Photo Bloomberg.com.

Devices to press the fruit have been integral to the process since very early days. Ancient Egyptians filled muslin cloth with grapes, twisting and squeezing to obtain all the precious liquid (Butler & Heskett, 2012). It seems primitive, yet it was clever and innovative in its day. In the Levant, contemporaneously, foot treading was the common means of crushing and extracting. It survives in a few locales, mostly on the Iberian Peninsula.

In time, mechanical devices were developed for pressing, at first using the most commonly available and suitably sturdy material which could be cut and fashioned: wood. The beam press was likely invented by the 3rd century BCE while more efficient lever-and-screw presses came into use in the 1st century CE (Butler & Heskett, 2012). Relics of massive medieval presses from the days of monastic orders, such as the Cistercians at Clos Vougeot in Burgundy, can still be seen (Fig. 8).

Figure 8. One of the gigantic wood presses from the 12th century which can be seen today at the Clos de Vougeot. Photo Lionel Georgeot/bienpublic.com.

Basket presses in a vertical format were a derivative initially constructed from wood slats. A horizontal rotating version was created in France by Joseph Vaslin in 1925 (AWRI). His name is still associated with contemporary presses under the Bucher Vaslin brand (Fig. 9). Basket presses with wood slats are still in use by D’Arenberg and Rockford in Australia; all-stainless models are preferred by others. The bladder press – an inflatable air bag inside a horizontal tube – was first launched by Willmes in Germany in 1951 (Fig. 10). It enabled faster pressing and better juice quality for white wines, another step forward (AWRI).

Figure 9. Bucher XPlus IT press. Willmes Merlin Plus+ press. Photo Bucher Vaslin.

Figure 10. Willmes Merlin Plus+ press. Photo Willmes GmbH.

The arrival of barrels brings us back to wood. The exact date a wood barrel came to be employed for wine is uncertain. An early depiction showing barrels on a skiff being pulled along a river in Southern France is thought to be from the 1st century CE (original bas-relief Musée Calvet, Avignon, France). Wood barrels and wine have been allies ever since.

The coopering process has no doubt been improved over the centuries, but the essentials remain the same. The very nature of the barrel limits fabrication alternatives. Coopering continues to be largely dependent on human hands, with minimal assistance from machinery. Barrels tend to be fashioned in relatively few sizes and shapes. One of the rare innovations is a striking ovoid without hoops from Taransaud: an egg made of French oak named the Ovum (Fig. 11).

Figure 11. The remarkable 2,000-liter ovoid barrel without supporting hoops first developed by Taransaud in 2010. The egg shape is an example of the “golden ratio” and empowers natural convection. Photo Taransaud Tonnellerie, https://www.taransaud.com/en/tonneau-vin/ovum-technical-and-aesthetic-achievement/

Modern cooperages offer a menu of à la carte flavor outcomes depending on how the wood is toasted. Wineries today can also choose alternative wood products: powders, granules, chips and blocks or staves to place into a tank. These may be considered tweaks, not leaps. There are also stainless steel barrels mimicking the shape of a conventional barrel which can be placed alongside their wood counterparts (Fig. 12).

Figure 12. Wood and steel barrels alongside each other at Trisaetum Winery on Ribbon Ridge Road, Newberg, Oregon. Photo ©Roger C. Bohmrich.

Do scientific discoveries deserve to be considered innovative transformations? It could be argued that research into yeasts and bacteria has yielded results as momentous as controlling temperature. In the words of a recent report, “early inventions and innovations in grape and wine production were based on little or no knowledge of the biology of grapevines or the microbes that drive fermentation” (Chambers & Pretorius, 2010). It was not until 1680 that Antonie van Leeuwenhoek first observed yeast cells under a microscope. Nearly two centuries passed before Louis Pasteur, in 1864, identified yeasts as responsible for fermentation, a monumental benchmark. Hermann Müller-Thurgau introduced the inoculation of must with yeast cultures in 1890. The first dried yeast strains came into commercial use in California in 1965 (AWRI). Wineries now depend routinely on cultures to conduct fermentation, predictably and reliably.

In a concurrent development, Pasteur isolated bacteria in wine in 1866 but associated them only with spoilage. In 1891, Müller-Thurgau added crucial insight: bacteria brought about the conversion of malic acid (AWRI). The 20th century saw a deepening understanding and mastery of this critical process with inestimable benefits for wine.

Current scientific research revolves around the ever-so-important yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae. Using gene technology, yeasts have been modified to enhance volatile thiols or fruity esters. Another yeast, ML01, can complete both the alcoholic and malolactic fermentations without bacteria (Chambers & Pretorius, 2010). The adoption of such GMO products is restricted not by their usefulness but by societal objections. Are these concerns justified by potential harm to human beings or the “normal” population of microbes? That question hangs over us today and the verdict will influence the next chapter of winemaking history. The new frontier of synthetic biology offers the possibility of designing complete genomes involving bacteria, yeasts, grape varieties and rootstocks. Wine has come a long way from those early pottery jugs.



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References

AWRI (The Australian Wine Research Institute), Wine History,https://winehistory.com.au/. Accessed August 2019.

Butler, J & Heskett, R (2012), Divine Vintage: Following the Wine Trail from Genesis to the Modern Age, St. Martin's Press.

Chambers, P J & Pretorius, I S (Dec 2010), Fermenting knowledge: the history of winemaking, science and yeast research, EMBO Reports, National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine.

Johnson, H (1999), Story of Wine, Mitchell Beazley.

McCoy, E (2016), See Exactly How a Bordeaux Château Makes Its Top Wines,https://www.bloomberg.com/news/photo-essays/2016-10-06/see-exactly-how-bordeaux-s-chateau-palmer-makes-its-top-wines.

McGovern, P E (2003), Ancient Wine: The Search for the Origins of Viniculture, Princeton University Press.

McGovern, P E (2009), Uncorking the Past: The Quest for Wine, Beer, and Other Alcoholic Beverages, University of California Press.

Pontallier, P (2012), Paul Pontallier Bordeaux Wine Vinification, Wood or Steel,https://www.thewinecellarinsider.com/2012/03/paul-pontallier-bordeaux-wine-vinification-wood-steel-pt1/

Violatti, C (2014), Pottery in Antiquity, Ancient History Encyclopedia,https://www.ancient.eu/pottery/