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Frankenwine?

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You’ve read for years how red wine’s antioxidant properties are good for your heart and may even prevent cancer. Maybe you don’t like red wine; it gives you a headache. Too bad white wines don’t have the same properties, but they’re not fermented on their skins, like red wines, so white wines don’t have nearly the same level of polyphenols as red wines.

But wait! Now comes news out of Israel that scientists have figured out a way to make white wine with the same antioxidant polyphenols as red wine. The technique was developed at the Israel Institute of Technology, in Haifa, by Michael Aviram, a professor of biochemistry and medicine. It is said to involve incubating squeezed grapes in the presence of alcohol for 18 hours before removing their skins. This allows the skins to ferment with the pulp before the final fermentation is completed. Aviram says the resulting white wine has the same antioxidant activity as red wine.

You’ll be able to find such heart-protecting wines in the U.S. later this year because an Israeli winery, Binyamina, is planning on releasing a wine that was produced with the Aviram formula. It’s a Muscat, and it’s sweet, because the alcohol is so high that the yeasts can’t complete the fermentation, resulting in residual sugar.

It’s not hard to envision where all this is going. Red wine sales have been on the uptick ever since Morley Safer did his famous “French Paradox” segment on Sixty Minutes in 1991. There have been anecdotal reports ever since that people would drink red wine for its health benefits if it didn’t give them a headache. If Aviram’s technology really works as advertised, then white wine could be the new red. It would help if the wines were dry, but with today’s new genetically-modified (GM) designer yeasts that can function at higher alcohol levels, that shouldn’t be too hard.

But how far down this slippery slope should we go? Critics have already sounded the alarm over GM food products, charging that the necessary safety tests have not been conducted. In the world of wine, harsh criticism has been leveled against GM grapevines and yeasts. Late last year, The Economist reported that many French people view such tinkering as a “war on terroir,” while here in the States, wines made with GM techniques have been dubbed “Frankenwine.” Such tinkering at the genetic level opens up vistas that previously existed only in science fiction. As The Economist mused, “Why should sauvignon blanc be stuck with boring old gooseberry and cabernet sauvignon with cassis? Genomics could beget some novel wine flavours and combinations to ensure the wine really does go with the food…”.

I’m all for conducting safety tests. We don’t want to be putting anything into our bodies that could harm us or the gene pool. But I have a feeling that some people will never be satisfied with anything GM because it just rubs them the wrong way. They’re philosophically opposed to it. What do you think about GM grapes, yeasts, vines and wines?


  1. Morton Leslie says:

    If Aviram’s wine has the same polyphenol profile as red wine then it is likely to have the same headache producing profile. This technique would also extract the full complement of polyphenols before alcoholic fermentation perhaps accentuating the development of the headache fraction during fermentation. Moreover, for many of us the Muscat grape has its own headache agent, so this is not the choice of grape if the goal is to avoid a headache. I would not expect to see dry versions unless consumers develop a taste for astringent white wine. It will have to be aged or made sweet to cover up the extracted phenols. To tell you the truth, the idea of a high alcohol, sweet, Israeli Muscat is already giving me a headache.

  2. Polyphenols may cause headaches in some folks, but others are aching from reaction to biogenic amines and others still to higher alcohols.

    This is not a “Frankenwine” but it probably is one I would qualify as over-processed. And we have been sliding down that slippery slope for a very long time.

    But Steve asked how I feel about GM grapes and yeast. Pretty sanguine, thanks. Personally I have no fear at all of GM technology – I have used it in the lab, understand it fully and keep up with the field. All else being equal, knowing a wine had GM products in it would not at all diminish my enjoyment.

    On the other hand I have a deep fear of how the tech is being commercialized – if you don’t know the story already, Google “Monsanto patent enforcement” and you will see why.

    That said, I don’t expect that I will be using any GM grapes or yeast in my own winemaking; the former because I don’t expect to see GM vines in my lifetime, and the latter because GM yeast have nothing to offer that is superior to conventionally-bred strains.

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