We are standing on the balcony of La Co(o) rniche in Pyla, France, the unusually named hotel and restaurant overlooking Europe’s highest sand dune.
Nicolas Gaume, the hotel’s co-owner and a co-founder of start-up Space Cargo Unlimited, grew up in this area, which is about 70km west of Bordeaux, in a building designed as a hunting lodge by his great-grandfather. He attributes his childhood obsession with science fiction to the otherworldly, almost Martian surroundings.
So it’s a fitting place to meet, a few days after we became two of the first people to taste a wine that has returned from space.
The tasting was an important milestone in Space Cargo Unlimited’s mission to understand whether answers to problems in terrestrial agriculture lie beyond Earth. It plans six experiments in total over the next few years under the banner Mission Wise, a privately led research programme started by Gaume. In this trial, he sent 12 bottles of Petrus up to the International Space Station (ISS), 400km above the surface of the Earth.
Astronauts have conducted almost 3,000 scientific experiments on the ISS since 2000, from searching for dark-matter particles to studying how microgravity (an atmosphere with little, but not zero, gravity) affects white blood cells, which will help develop better medical drugs on Earth. But this was the first time that the experiments had involved bottles of wine.
From lift-off in November 2019 to their return in January 2021, the bottles spent 14 months travelling 300 million kilometres, orbiting the Earth 16 times a day. Mission Wise took advantage of a programme launched by Nasa in 2019 to widen access to the ISS for private industry; it would not tell me the cost of its experiments.
Nasa normally prohibits alcohol on space missions, so getting wine on board was a challenge. And any potentially hazardous material — Petrus comes in glass bottles with corks — must pass stringent safety measures.
“Nasa gave authorisation for the project under strict conditions and as part of a wider research programme,” says Philippe Darriet, head of the oenology department at the Institute of Vine and Wine Science at Bordeaux university, which is a partner in the Mission Wise project. “The wine had to be bought on the open market [by Space Cargo Unlimited], not donated by the estate for any promotional purposes, and at least nine of the 12 bottles had to be used for scientific analysis — such as this tasting — on their return to Earth.”
Darriet worked with engineers to design capsules that would hold the bottles and their corks in place at a constant 18C-20C and withstand pressure during take-off and re-entry.
These bottles are not Space Cargo Unlimited’s only wine-related experiment on the ISS: a flight in February 2020 took 320 vine canes. “There is no other facility in existence that allows us to conduct research in this kind of stable microgravity environment,” says Gaume. “We know that the [virtual] absence of gravity creates enormous stresses in living organisms that can trigger evolutions at a cellular level, and we hope to understand how to harness the impact of this in practical ways.
“Viticulture is the canary in the coal mine for climate change,” he says. “Alcohol is one indicator of this . . . Wines that were 11 per cent [alcohol by volume] in the 1970s are now routinely 14 per cent ABV or more, and there is a worry that in 30 years’ time regions like Bordeaux will be unsuitable for fine wine production.” Space, he hopes, will hold some answers.
And how did the experiments go? For the vines, it is too early to say. Half Cabernet Sauvignon and half Merlot varieties, they are now in the Mercier vine nursery in France and visibly growing faster than their control counterparts. Once they have been firmly established, they will be exposed to common vine diseases and to climate-related challenges such as low water supply to see if conditions on the ISS have made them better able to cope with stresses back on Earth.
Olivier Zekri, head of research and development at Mercier, cautions against drawing conclusions until the vines have been through an entire growth cycle, but there is a tantalising prospect that if these space vines are better able to resist drought and disease, they could be cloned and made commercially available.
As for the wine? The first tasting took place in March, with initial results announced a few weeks later. The jury — a mix of researchers and investors — was split on visual and aromatic differences, but 11 of the 12 found demonstrably different flavours in the wines that had been in space. I noticed softer tannins and fruits, along with the higher floral, smoke and truffle aromatics typical of Petrus with a few years longer in bottle.
Next, Mission Wise will attempt to ferment grape must on the ISS, something that may offer insights not just into wine but also the wider food and pharmaceutical industries, as microbial fermentation is the basis for things such as vaccines and anticancer drugs.
“Wine is an amazing study material that contains key components of life, from yeast to bacteria,” says Gaume, “and it’s no coincidence that Louis Pasteur made so many discoveries by studying its properties. We hope to continue that tradition of scientific exploration.”
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