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Frankenstein Wines?

by Andrew McNaughton

Genetically modified Pinot / Champagne / Shiraz ... why not? Your favourite foods are probably courtesy of a little genetic modification in any case. So why not your favourite tipple? It’s not that you’d be swigging down grapes from Chateau Frankenstein, and in the cold light of day, the wine industry resembles a paint factory more than an artisan winemaker’s premises.

The issue of GM (genetically modified) wines largely comes down to is one of perception. Traditional wine makers are appalled at the thought of the predictability of GM grapes and GM yeasts. The finesse of reading the growing conditions, the grape’s sugar levels and the wine making itself - all lost in the lifeless world of zombie wines. Or is it? Very few wines are made as they would have been 200, or even 100 years ago, even wines with excellent vintages. Quantity wise, most wines don’t rely upon wild yeasts on the skin of the grapes for fermentation, they add commercially available strains of 
Saccharomyces cerevisiae. They also add industrial enzymes to hurry along the fermentation process. This isn’t to say all these wines are inferior (or superior) to all artisan wines. The point is they are accepted - GM wines are not.

In 2000, a group in France called the Terre et Vin du Monde (land of wine and the world) called for a ten year moratorium on GM vines or yeast. The French government never agreed. By 2004 a test planting of 70 vines in Alsace, genetically modified to resist the soil nematode Xiphinema index, was underway. The nematode causes the the highly destructive fan leaf disease in grapes.  The Terre et Vin du Monde were not impressed, claiming it would destroy 100 years of winemaking by removing diversity from the region. No matter that Xiphinema index can remove up to 80% of the grape harvest. Apparently pouring highly toxic pesticides and herbicides onto the grapes and their environs didn’t cause any harm either?  So much for the sacred ‘terroir’ (the soil, geography and climate - how they impart a special ‘sense of place’ upon the wine).

In the European Union, consumers have been vigorously opposed to GM food, yet, they happily eat cheese ... so? For most cheese manufacturers, calf rennet has been replaced by chymosin, hooray, no more dead calves on your conscience. Chymosin is a milk coagulating enzyme, found in a fungus. To be useful to cheese makers it’s genetic manufacturing machinery was inserted into a bacterium - which happily churns out chymosin. Cue the cheese makers. The cheese isn’t labelled as GM, simply because the GM component is classified as as ‘processing aid’ and doesn’t appear in the final product. Most consumers probably never consider this level of greyness. If your running shoes don’t have a small, under-paid child attached to them when you buy them, you ignore the potential that such a child may have been a ‘processing aid’. The same EU regulation which allows the cheese makers to side step GM issues also allows wine makers to do the same thing with GM yeast, if they chose to. Opponents point out that, theoretically, some modified yeast cells could make it into the final product.

Yeasts are well on their way to changing how wines are made. Easy to modify and rapid reproduction cycles make them an ideal organism to tinker with. In view of the generally rabid opposition of wine makers to GM yeasts, researchers have a cunning plan. By using the lab-based GM yeasts, they hope to then use traditional methods to breed the same characteristics in non-GM yeasts. How ... yesterday?

Other innovations involve hybridising with
S. cerevisiae with other Saccharomyces species which cannot ferment grape juice, but which impart a host of new flavours, such as mazipan, nuts, butter and soap. One wild species (S. cariocanus) was found on fruit flies in Brazil. Another, S. mikatae, normally lives on dead leaves. With so much new diversity ready to be introduced to the world of wine, it seems to fit the traditionalist’s view that variation is what they strive to protect. GM practices can introduce variety quicker than any other method. Could it be the traditionalists want to maintain diversity only so long as it doesn’t change? If so, please let those of us with shallow pockets enjoy the fruits of GM wines. It could mean our cheap plonk romps all over their fine wines with regards to aroma, flavour, mouth feel - and maybe no hangover. But that’s another GM story ...
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