Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Superbrett: A wine horror story

What wine used to taste like, in 2012
Based on a true story

SAN FRANCISCO (Jan. 22, 2042):

Former winemakers and stink drinkers gathered today at the annual "Wine Remembrance" celebration to drink some old vintages and reminisce about the days before Superbrett.

Most attendees were well into their retirement years, but there was a smattering of people in their 40s. "My grandfather used to pour me a glass of wine at the table, and I remember it tasted like plums," said Ray Lewis IV. "It smelled nice too. My folks drank it all the time. People acted different when they were high on wine. Some people say it's better now, but I think we've lost something."

Superbrett is the worldwide dominant strain of yeast, developed by the Swedish biofuel industry in 2013. It made no real impact on the energy industry, but within a generation it eliminated what was once a worldwide industry in wine.


What wine smells like now (UC Davis Brett Impact Wheel)
Swedish engineers noticed in 2009 that their ethanol fermentation process had been taken over by brettanomyces yeast, cousin of the now-rare genus Saccharomyces that once fermented grapes into wine for drinking alcohol. They liked the hardiness and adaptability of brett, but most strains were not as efficient at converting sugar into alcohol.

So they used selective breeding to develop Superbrett, a yeast so efficient that it would outcompete all other yeasts. And because they weren't drinking the ethanol it produced, they cared little what the end product tasted like.

According to the historical record, wine tasted different before Superbrett escaped Sweden and spread throughout the world. Frequently, wines were described in rapturous language such as "bursting with ripe flavors of peach, apricot, lime, Key lime, Meyer lemon, and crushed elderberry." Wine supported the population of the former nation of France. Historians believe the changing taste of wine led to the European Insurrection of 2025.

In California, long rows of grapevines once covered the valleys and hillsides for many miles along the coast.

"Napa used to be one of the wealthiest counties in the state," one retired winemaker said. "It's still a beautiful place to live, and it will look even nicer when all the apple trees mature. But there was a time when people had jobs there."

Few people under age 40 have tasted a glass of non-medicinal wine. Supplies of recreational wine began to run low in the early '20s, and today, recreational wine bottles rarely leave private collections. Rumors of large stocks still existing have led to violent riots and confrontations all over the former territory of Italy. But tensions eased with the development, legalization and sale of today's smorgasbord of mood aids.

"It's better today, really," said one former wine lover. "I remember when we used to argue about wine. Is this wine too high in alcohol? Did the winemaker leave that one in the barrel too long? Silly, really. Nowadays you take a pill and everything's better. I do miss the flavor, though."

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The story above is based on a real situation that I learned about at UC Davis' recent brettanomyces seminar. Swedish biofuel researchers really are working on developing Superbrett. UC Davis professor Linda Bisson said, "Keep your Superbrett away from my wine industry."

I haven't been able to stop thinking about Brett since the seminar, which was a major philosophical shift for UC Davis.

Here's my news story for Wine Searcher about the introduction of the Brettanomyces Impact Wheel, the equivalent of the Brett Aroma Wheel, in which we learn that our reaction to brett's flavors is often cultural.

And here's my column for Palate Press about the impact: I don't know anymore which flavors come from grapes, and which come from brett. Go look at the original Wine Aroma Wheel, developed at UC Davis, and you'll see that aromas attributable to brett make up the majority of it.

The thing to keep in mind about both those stories, as they relate to Superbrett, is that while UC Davis said more than 20% of the brett strains it tested gave more positive influence than not, that means there's nearly an 80% chance that whatever strain of Superbrett the Swedish engineers develop will make wine undrinkable.

And you thought the zombie apocalypse was scary.

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