Bottles of Bordeaux bound for space

11 November 2019

Interview with 

Claire Bryant, University of Cambridge

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From dinner to drinks now, and the announcement that wine buffs are sending a dozen bottles - not of "rie-slinghot", or even "star-donnay" - but Bordeaux into space! Regrettably for them, the astronauts won’t be allowed to drink it! To find out why on Earth, or more accurately not on Earth, you’d want to do that, Chris Smith spoke with scientist and wine expert Clare Bryant...

Clare - So, the space agency NASA are actually sending the wine into space! There's a guy from the Bordeaux region who has a close association with them so they've decided to send a case of Bordeaux into space.

Chris - Why?

Clare - That's a very good question and I'm not sure I have an answer to it. The spiel they're giving us is that it's an experiment, where they're retaining one case of the Bordeaux in Bordeaux, in a perfectly temperature controlled cellar and they're sending the other case into space to be kept for a year on the space station.

Chris - As a case control study?

Clare - A case control study, where we stored it at 18 degrees in space then they'll bring it back and presumably analyse it.

Chris - What might happen?

Clare - This is all based around the ability to age wine. So wine ageing is a really interesting concept. Where a very good quality wine and it's only really good quality wines that will age well, will change in texture, taste, aromas and these factors happen over time. So, a long maturation of wine will eventually end up w ith a complex interesting product. So taking into space because you're changing the environment, potentially could I guess, age wine faster because everybody would love to know way of speeding up the wine aging process. You can sell a mature wine faster, because one of the things that costs money with wine that age is actually having to store it until it's ready to drink.

Chris - One aspect of this is that the wine ends up on the shelf it's it's laid down to bottle age. Could there be some impact therefore of not ending up with? There must be a gradient in the wine, where some of the heavier molecules will end up at the bottom, some of the sediment will end up on the bottom, people say it's a mark of a good wine if you get that nice sediment falling in the bottom of the wine. So it sounds like it's just gratuitous marketing doesn't it, but do you think there could be some sensible aspect to this? They might see some interesting chemistry?

Clare - Yeah, I mean that the sediment that you get is due to the tannins. So part of the aging process with tannins is that eventually they go from being long chains, to sort of aggregates of short change and they then form sort of sediment and then the sediment drops out in the wine. But I think with we're sending a case for a year in space, the kind of other factors that alter the way a wine age as well as temperature, is vibration, there's clearly going to be a vibrational process taking the case in space but also radiation. So, one of the things you do when you store wines, you store in the dark because the UV light generates free radicals and that causes problems. So I presume you're thinking about the effects potentially of gravity or microgravity, different space radiation and what that might actually do to the way in which the wine ages.

Chris - There have been booze cruises into space before - haven't there? This isn't the first in that respect?

Clare - No it's not. The Russians when they went up to the 'Mir' space station, I believe it's called, used to smuggle vodka with them they'd actually lose weight and tuck the vodka in their suits and then take it with them when they went into space.

Chris - And the moon landings? They had a tipple as well?

Clare - The moon landings took the communion wine onto the moon with them and they poured it into the glass and it kind of climbed its way out of the glass!

Chris - So would you indulge? Would you worried at all by radiation - irradiated wine?

Clare - Well interestingly there's there was a really interesting presentation done by somebody at the Royal Society chemistry. They actually talked about the effects of radiation, and what it does to wine aging. The problem is that actually instead of not actually improving the wine, it can actually make it worse because it can generate a bunch of volatile sulphurs - and that gives it a nasty smell. So I'm not so sure that this is such a good idea!

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