People have enjoyed drinking wine for thousands of years. Like many other happy human discoveries, wine was likely discovered by accident. By 3000 BC, people in ancient Egypt and Persia were making wines. The art and science of winemaking has changed considerably since these early times.
Wine Science — The Ancient Romans
The ancient Romans kick-started several developments in making wines. By 1000 BC, Romans were taking a closer look at grapes and the diseases that affected them. They were also considering the types of soils in which grapes grew the best. They started classifying different types of grapes and developed pruning and irrigation techniques that improved wines.
Perhaps the largest contribution that Romans may have made, however, was to develop wooden casks. Before this, wine was stored in skins or jars.
The Science of Wine Fermentation — Champagne
During the 17th century, the Catholic Church, which controlled most of the best vineyards in France at the time, was not happy with second fermentations that led to wines with bubbles. In fact, the Church sent Dom Pierre Perignon (c. 1638-1715) to its vineyards to try to develop a way to stop the second fermentation that led to sparkling wines. Happily for us today, tastes in the royalty of England and France changed; Dom Perignon was told to reverse course and figure out how to improve the process of making what we now call champagne.
Wine Science — The Cork
During the times of the ancient Greeks, cork was probably used to seal wine containers. Somehow over time, this knowledge of cork to protect wines was lost. The same Dom Perignon brought cork stoppers back into fashion after finding that cork was much more effective at keeping champagne inside bottles than the wood stoppers currently in use.
Science of Wine Fermentation — Louis Pasteur (1822-1895)
Louis Pasteur discovered and proved that yeast formed alcohol from sugar during the fermentation process and that bacteria could make a wine turn sour. Pasteur”s discoveries ultimately led to more wine production and less wine spoilage, as well as to wines that were safer to drink.
The Art and Science of Winemaking Today
Today, many winemakers feel conflicted about utilizing modern scientific knowledge to enhance the art of making wines. While information about the interactions between grapes, soil, weather conditions and different methods of fermentation has increased exponentially since ancient times, many feel that winemaking is a refined art that should not be tampered with too much through the use of advanced scientific practices.
One of the things that scientists are working on today is developing computer models to help identify what people consider to be the good traits of wine. Other scientists are trying to pinpoint the chemicals in wines that lead to certain tastes, such as ”peppery.”
It is hard to imagine a time when winemakers will be able to manipulate characteristics of their wines to be completely consistent from year to year. It is also hard to imagine a time when science will be able to calculate how an individual may perceive the taste or smell of a given wine.
Will science take the mystery out of making wine and tasting wine? Only time will tell.