After spending a year in space, 12 bottles of Bordeaux wine and 320 canes of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon are back on Earth. Earlier this month, the SpaceX Dragon carrying the French payload made its splashdown off the coast of Florida, where it was retrieved and now en route to Bordeaux for analysis.
The spacewine experiment was the first of its kind aboard the International Space Station, and is part of a biological research project called Mission WISE (Vitis Vinum in Spatium Experimentia), a collaboration between French start-up Space Cargo Unlimited (SCU), the Institute of Vine and Wine Science (ISVV) at the University of Bordeaux, payload specialist Nanoracks and NASA.
The study aims to examine how microgravity affects the taste and structural composition of foods and plants, and also help predict the future of agriculture in the age of climate change. So why wine? SCU co-founder and CEO Nicolas Gaume refers to it as a canary in a coal mine.
"A vine is a super-sensitive plant, so when it's exposed to environmental stressors, it is much more touched than other agricultural products," Gaume told Unfiltered. "We're passionate about wine, but we also feel that wines and vines are an amazingly important segment for the future because of their ability to find solutions for all our agriculture." Gaume adds that wine is also a lucrative agricultural product, opening doors for research funding from the ISVV.
Getting wine into space wasn't easy though. NASA forbids bringing alcohol or glass onto the ISS, and it took Gaume six years to convince the space agency to sign off. Thanks to the help of Nanoracks, a private in-space services company, Gaume was able to get a space cellar retrofitted to NASA's standards (after all, these wines are moving at speeds up to 18,000 mph over the course of 185,000,000 miles, 254 miles above Earth).
As the absence of gravity is one of the biggest environmental stressors, Gaume says the experiment's theory is that the plants that survive that stress will be more resilient against lesser stressors such as the ones generated by climate change. "We want to make sure we have quality Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon plants that are more resistant," he adds.
WISE chief scientific officer Dr. Michael Lebert says the aging process will be interesting to examine, as the prolonged exposure to microgravity, combined with external influences such as polar radiation, may provoke new and unknown molecular changes in the wine. In the end, he hopes it will help winemakers master their field.
"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," Dr. Lebert told Unfiltered via email.
A private tasting of the 12 space bottles will be held in February, led by enologist Franck Dubourdieu (a cousin of the late legendary Bordeaux winemaker Denis Dubourdieu), who will compare them to the identical 12 bottles that remained on Earth.
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