These France-based companies have teamed up to find out.
It sounds like something straight from a sci-fi novel: scientists developing new techniques for growing edible plants from outer space. But this isn’t just the premise of The Martian and other dystopian fare: it’s already happening, including in the French wine and vine-growing industry.
In January, 320 Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon vine canes and twelve bottles of Bordeaux wines returned to Earth– after spending 10 and 14 months aboard the International Space Station, respectively.
Now, two France-based companies are teaming up to study the plants and develop new viticultural techniques out of their findings—notably with the hope of yielding vines that can better withstand the pressures of climate change.
Vine nursery group Mercier, based in the Loire Valley, is partnering with Bordeaux biotech startup Space Biology Unlimited for the project, which will see researchers study the space-grown vine canes in an attempt to develop, and commercialize, more resistant vines.
Space Biology Unlimited is a subsidiary of Luxembourg-headquartered company Space Cargo Unlimited, which has worked on several extra-earthly manufacturing projects, many devoted to agriculture.
The partnership is tied to Space Cargo Unlimited’s Mission WISE, a research program that studies the effects of microgravity on plants and other complex biological systems.
Studying the Effects of Microgravity on Vine Growth & Resistance
The Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot vine canes that orbited the Earth aboard the ISS as part of Space Cargo Unlimited’s CANES experiment are now in the hands of Mercier’s research teams, who are starting grafts and attempting to reproduce them.
The aim is to plant them in vineyards by 2022, then study their behavior and potential mutations as a result of the 10-month space sojourn. The ultimate goal? To develop vines with enhanced properties, such as tolerance to environmental stress, and perhaps even better or higher-quality yields.
Nicolas Gaume, co-founder and CEO of Space Cargo Unlimited, says he and fellow founder Emmanuel Etcheparre conceived the CANES project in 2014 after meeting the late head of the Bordeaux-based Science Institute of Vine and Wine (ISVV), Professor Denis Dubourdieu.
Space Cargo Unlimited also partnered with French research institute CNRS and the European Space Agency (ESA) to send a payload of vine canes last spring —after initially shuttling twelve bottles of Bordeaux wines to the station in December 2019.
He says that while similar experiments have in the past involved vine cells, tissue cultures and yeast cultures, the current project is the first to study entire vine cultures and canes. “With this specific experiment, the effects of radiation, particularly with regards to the vine culture’s DNA, will be analyzed and studied”, he notes.
The compounds most affected by microgravity will “llikely be molecules such as yeasts and bacteria, even in small quantities”, he adds. Effects on many of the other chemical compounds of wine remain to be seen.
Gaume says that while it remains too early to report any solid findings, “it is striking to see our replanted vine plants growing much, much faster than their twin vine plants that stayed on Earth”.
He says that the microgravity environment in space, alongside increased radiation, speeds the growth of plants. This finding might, in turn, allow scientists to identify ways to achieve higher yields in vineyards.
Meanwhile, the prospect of developing more climate-resistant plants is one that even the change-averse French wine industry might well embrace. In recent years, heat waves, flooding, and drought have had increasingly devastating effects on vineyard crops and wine production in France.
Finding potential ways to mitigate those effects and make vines—including for Merlot, found to be particularly vulnerable to climatic shifts– better able to withstand them would come as a significant relief for vintners worried about their livelihood and output.
“[Vine] canes and wine are ideal study materials and the canary in the coal mine for agriculture’s future on a changing Earth”, Gaume notes.
“Vine plants are extremely sensitive to climate change. One data point as an example: in the 1970s, wine produced in Bordeaux would end up with 11-12% alcohol. Today, with the same soils and processes, wine in Bordeaux tops 14-15%.”
He adds: “Among other factors, grapes get more sugary because of climate change, creating this higher level of alcohol. One can only wonder what it will be in 30 years.”
Tasting the Wines of the Future
One question that will likely intrigue those with curious palates is this one: what will these space-influenced wines taste like? Will there be any noticeable changes to their flavors, notes, and other qualities? The jury is still out.
But in early March, Gaume says, Space Cargo Limited will be hosting a “private organoleptic wine-tasting” session in France, and will release the results of the tasting (ostensibly with opinions from professional tasters) a few days after the session.
Wine-tasting is famously subjective, which may lead some to write all this off as a clever gimmick (especially given wonky terms like “organoleptic”, which simply means tasters use all their senses to judge the qualities of a given wine—from fruitiness to acidity).
But the aforementioned conditions found in space—including micro-gravity and differences in air pressure —make the question of whether the qualities of a given wine might noticeably change after spending some time in orbit a valid one.
In any case, and whether you find these projects worthy of excitement, skepticism, or even alarm, they’re certainly ones to watch.