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12.31.2005

Can Computers Make for Better Wine?

Some of the most lively discussions on Vinography have been about the role of technology in the winemaking process and how much is too much. When does wine go from a magical mix of human art and nature's bounty to a chemically engineered beverage? If a wine's taste has been engineered by more than the decisions of when and where to pick the grapes, what to ferment them in, and for how long, does that make it a lesser wine? There are all sorts of gray areas here which intrigue some people, send others running for the hills, and conjure bile and vitriol from still others.

So lets add to the fray.

Today CNN reports on a joint team of researchers at Carnegie Mellon University and some scientists in Chile who are trying to understand at a molecular level the various chemicals which are responsible for the "good" tastes in wine, with the idea that if and when identified, this knowledge can help to make better tasting wine.

In particular, one area of focus is how yeasts turn the sugars of grapes into alcohol and the various chemical byproducts (ployphenols, flavinoids, etc.) which are responsible for the flavors of wine. Apparently this process isn't entirely understood, nor are all the various products of this complex biological transformation.

It's funny to listen to scientists talk about stuff that remains a bit of a mystery, as their rational, methodical sides struggle with the fact that chemical analysis never quite squares with the perception of taste, for instance.

In any case, it's interesting work to keep an eye on, and it makes for interesting hypothetical discussions. Will such research, which will invariably result in more technology being applied in the winemaking process only yield the oenological equivalents of MSG (chemical engineering to target specific physiological structures), or will it simply allow good winemakers to become better? Will it drive the homogenization of wine flavors or simply higher quality wines?

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Required Reading for Wine Lovers

The Oxford Companion to Wine by Jancis Robinson The Taste of Wine by Emile Peynaud Adventures on the Wine Route by Kermit Lynch Love By the Glass by Dorothy Gaiter & John Brecher Noble Rot by William Echikson The Science of Wine by Jamie Goode The Judgement of Paris by George Taber The Wine Bible by Karen MacNeil The Botanist and the Vintner by Christy Campbell The Emperor of Wine by Elin McCoy The World Atlas of Wine by Hugh Johnson The World's Greatest Wine Estates by Robert M. Parker, Jr.