"Hangover-Free Wine Developed by Scientists!" You may have noticed this headline from various news outlets in the past week. The stories were spurred by new research from the University of Illinois, where a team led by associate professor of microbial genomics Dr. Yong-Su Jin has discovered a new method to genetically engineer strains of yeast used in winemaking.
But the development of a “hangover-free” wine has been grossly overstated, Jin told Wine Spectator. No such wine has been made, and the not-so-certain possibility of creating such a wine is a long way off.
“I am so embarrassed to see many news media reporting that we have already made a hangover-free wine,” said Jin. “We have not reached there yet.” That said, his research does hold a lot of potential for winemaking, if vintners believe the tools are worthwhile.
Jin’s study, published in the December 2014 issue of Applied and Environmental Microbiology, introduces a novel method for manipulating polyploid strains of Saccharomyces cerevisiae, the strain of yeast that carries out most of the fermentations in wine, beer and bread.
Polyploid cells, unlike most, contain multiple paired sets of chromosomes. Yeast strains made of such cells have been difficult to genetically engineer in the past. Manipulate one gene, and a gene in a different copy of the genome would correct it back. Now, however, Jin has employed a relatively new technology he calls a “genome knife,” which should be able to target certain genes in polyploid yeast strains very precisely.
And so far, that’s all. A new method has been discovered, but no manipulated yeast has yet been produced, let alone the wine that would result from it.
Jin does see hangover reduction as one among many potential applications of his research. “There are now many possibilities,” he said. It’s conceivable, he claimed, that the genome knife could produce a yeast that could carry out malolactic fermentation (the secondary fermentation that converts tart malic acid to creamy lactic acid) in a way that produces fewer biogenic amines—compounds such as histamines and tyramines, which some believe are responsible for wine-related headaches—thereby lessening hangover symptoms.
Wait a minute. “Yeast aren't responsible for malolactic; it's a bacteria that does that,” noted Brian Loring, who uses commercial yeast and bacteria to inoculate his wines at Loring Wine Company, in Lompoc, Calif.
But Jin told Wine Spectator that further experimentation might lead to a targeted yeast strain that could replace bacteria in the malolactic process. The lactic acid bacteria used in winemaking can be difficult to control, Jin argued, and when it goes wrong, it can result in excess production of biogenic amines.
Still, many are raising their eyebrows at the idea that reducing biogenic amines in wine would eliminate unpleasant mornings after. Dr. Robert Pandina, director of the Center of Alcohol Studies at Rutgers University, disputes that biogenic amines are responsible for most people’s red-wine headaches. “Histamine sensitivity is fairly rare at doses contained in alcoholic beverages,” he said. “Hangovers are still of somewhat mysterious origins, but [mostly] they are caused by overindulgence in alcohol of any type.”
Common sense holds that malo-gone-wrong and biogenic amines cannot be responsible for all hangovers. Not all wines (and not all alcoholic beverages) go through malolactic fermentation.
Jin agrees that alcohol itself is a major factor and emphasizes that he attributes wine hangovers only partially to biogenic amines. The potential development of wine with fewer biogenic amines “does not mean that we would not suffer anymore after drinking excessive amounts of wine,” he said. “That would be awesome, but I think it is impossible.”
Hangovers aside, Jin believes his new tool has great potential. “Now we have a proper and safe genetic tool to design yeast metabolism for making better fermented products, such as wine, beer and bread.” In addition to controlling secondary fermentations, Jin hypothesized that, down the line, the genome knife could enable winemakers to perform fermentations more efficiently, to alter the flavors of a wine, and to increase the amount of potentially healthy compounds like resveratrol in wine.
Controlling aspects of a wine by yeast is not so different from practices already available. Winemakers who inoculate their wines with commercial yeast have a long menu of strains available to them, each imparting different characteristics. “Some yeast are geared toward cooler fermentations; for others, you might want to look for fruitier components,” explained Corey Beck, president and director of winemaking for Francis Ford Coppola Winery. “You look at white wine yeast in terms of the [aromatic] esters they can produce; you might look for yeast that are a little more alcohol-tolerant for bigger red wines.”
Nor is the reduction of biogenic amines a new pursuit for winemakers. “Most commercially sold [malolactic] bacteria say that they were selected in part to reduce the amount of things like biogenic amines,” said Loring. The genome knife, Jin hopes, could simply make these current winemaking practices more thorough, precise and efficient.
Much work remains for Jin and his colleagues in the lab. And it’s unclear whether wine produced from genetically modified yeast would have to be labeled as containing a genetically modified organism (GMO). Jin is not personally opposed to GMOs, but he acknowledged the difficulty of marketing products labeled as such to consumers.
What do winemakers think of the prospect of GMO yeast? “We would not be lining up to use this,” said Beck. But, he added, never say never. “We love doing trials, and experiments are part of growth in the wine industry.”
Bob Berthau, head winemaker at Chateau Ste. Michelle, said that he would not change his winemaking practices in order to reduce biogenic amines. “We don’t think [genetically modified yeast] is necessary, given the selection of yeasts available today,” he said.
“Would we use a GMO that produced no biogenic amines? Maybe,” said Loring. “But I'd need to be shown that it really helped. Because I'm pretty sure that the alcohol, along with dehydration that occurs from drinking too much of it, also plays a major role in hangovers.”