A thought experiment: is wine just what is in the glass?

Imagine you were a synthetic chemist, smitten with wine. You tried a great Burgundy, and you simply couldn’t get this wine out of your mind.

Sadly, your salary as a researcher meant you just couldn’t afford to buy this wine. So you got together perfumiers, analytic chemists, food scientists and a whole raft of other experts to collaborate in a great venture: to recreate that great Burgundy synthetically.

After 10 years of research, you hit the jackpot. Despite the myriad flavour and aroma compounds present in the wine, you have recreated it with a little help from the Sigma catalogue.

You present the wine to two of the world’s top critics, and blind, they cannot tell the real from the synthetic Burgundy.

One critic celebrates: here we have a wine for the people. Something thrilling for $10 a bottle. After all, wine is just what in the glass, and if all we are experiencing with a great Burgundy is a delicious, compelling flavour, then this synthetic wine will do the job nicely.

The other critic, however, is deeply troubled. This is a bad day for wine. For wine is very much more than simply a liquid with particular flavour properties. It matters that the wine is ‘real’.

Which critic do you identify with most closely?

12 comments to A thought experiment: is wine just what is in the glass?

  • TommyB

    The troubled critic; I am confident that sythetic re-creation of great wine will never happen, but this consideration by yourself is a very interesting one – is a great painting replicar ever going to be as good/true/pure as the original? Why do some people spend their lives trying to find original copies of very old books?
    You cannot replicate something and make it authentic or special, because you have taken away the one thing that cannot be recreated – the soul of an aesthetic entity, it’s originality or “oneness” (if that makes any sense). Wine from the earth can never be re-created in a lab, it’s the same principal as synthetically re-creating a person, nature should not be copied or tampered with. Wow! I’ve gone off one one!!
    I leave you with this thought: good wine makes you think, great wine makes you remember – how can a systhetic product spark emotions like that?
    Thanks and good night.

  • Peter A

    Change in inevitable. I have no doubt that the future holds a Star Trek like ‘Food Replicator’ type of technology that will be able to synthesise any foodstuff from some basic raw ingedients. Will it taste the same? Probably. Will it be as enjoyable to consume? I think that largely depends on who you are and the reasons for choosing what you are eating/drinking. It is fare to sare that the majority of wine drinkers will choose, at the supermarket, the cheapest acceptable wine they can. These drinkers will be thrilled to get ’82 latour taste at £4.99 a bottle. For those of us who study wine, consumption is as much about the process, understanding, day i say Terroir as it is taste. I am a watch collector – The idea of a fake, whilst outwardly identical to an original, just does not do it for me. They may look the same, but the feeling i get whilst wearing a fake leads me to just as well buying a Casio. Tells the time great, lasts forever but has no soul.
    We are talking intangibles here without a wrong or a right answer. We all consume different things for different reasons and as technology and society moves on we will be given more choices to satisfy whatever the emotional, practical, financial, aestetic etc reasons that we choose one product over another.

    Cheers and COME ON ENGLAND!

    Peter.

  • I agree with TommyB, and I think most of us agree, that wine is art. You could replicate it, and you’ll probably do quite well. Can you possibly comprehend how many prints of Starry Night actually exist? But it has lost a bit of its soul, what made the piece of art truly worthy in the first place: the not-so, yet entirely mysterious process of making a legendary piece (or glass) of art.

  • Andrew Halliwell

    It’s a good question. I seem to remember reading a few years ago about researchers at the University of Navarra who’d created a model wine pretty much from water, alcohol and tartaric acid, then added in one by one flavour compounds they’d previously isolated on Gas Chromatograph from a real wine in order of human sensitivity to those compounds. They were “duplicating” a simple Grenache-rose I think, and as I remember, once they’d got up to about 20 flavour compounds, most people couldn’t tell the difference from the real thing. They were then going to tweak the amounts of these flavor compounds to (a) better understand human sense of smell/taste and (b) aid winemakers and viticulturalists to indicate the sort of flavours that people liked, to see where they originated from in the winemaking process – to ultimately learn more about how to make “better wine”.

    Back to the question I think the point is that whilst you could maybe nearly duplicate wines cheaply to make a decent cheap every day beverage, at the higher levels of wine, there are just too many parameters to understand and so nature/magic weaves its way into wines in subtle ways every vintage and with every month in barrel/bottle. It’s these never ending and slightly unpredictable nuances and subtleties that will keep real wine ahead of synthesised wine, for wine buffs at least. I guess.

  • Justin Roberts

    The troubled critic. They’ve done this with diamonds already and that’s why I made sure all the diamonds in my wife’s engagement ring contained a flaw.

  • Tommyb, the painter that tries to imitate the great paintings of the world will always lack to original passion that they were created with.

  • Haven’t I seen this in a Black Books episode?

  • Andrew Henderson

    At the risk of turning this into Pseuds Corner, the concept of authenticity of originality vs. close or even perfect reproduction was the subject of an influential 1936 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, by Marxist cultural critic Walter Benjamin.

    Benjamin argued that “even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.” According to Benjamin, original works of art therefore have an “aura”, although he felt that endless and ever improving reproductions of artworks “wither” the aura of the original. As a Marxist, Benjamin actually felt this was a good thing because the mystique of the original was diminished and its false importance lost.

    I’m lucky enough to have visited the Sistine Chapel and seen Michaelangelo’s staggering painted ceiling. However, I bet I’d have been far more staggered if I’d never previously seen reproductions of those paintings.

    There are those who argue that photography removed the requirement for painting to be truly representational, hence the birth of “modern” art in the late 19th century. Would there be a parallel effect if we could produce perfect reproductions of great wines? Would it force winemakers to explore new possibilities and would that be a good thing? Much modern art sharply divides critics and the public alike. So do many modern wines: Parker vs. many of the rest.

    I’ve not (yet) been lucky enough to taste Grand Cru Burgundy or First Growth Bordeaux. I hope I do get the opportunity one day but I’d be happy to sample a perfect replica. It may not have the same aura as the “genuine” wine, but does that matter if my sensory experience is otherwise identical? Many would argue that it doesn’t.

    The aura of great wines is a marvel in itself but part of the thrill is feeling part of the elite club who get to experience these ethereal scents and flavours. Experiencing them without the aura would be something less but I’d still welcome the opportunity.

  • Simon T

    Asparagus : you can buy it all year round from peru for a good price, but glorious May = beautiful English/Welsh Asparagus and this is heaven.
    Strawberries : You can keep eating them all year round but right about now is the the time to eat British strawberries – the finest in the world.
    Bananas : widely available from lots of countries, but Windward Island bananas have the perfect sweetness.
    Salmon : You can buy all the farmed salmon, but when you get the real deal firm rod caught salmon…lovely.
    Chicken : Has to be Free range.

    Ok, so I compromise on Salmon sometimes, Strawberries frequently, Bananas out of desperation and Asparagus/Chicken never, but my point is that this is a trade-off that I choose and that at any stage I understand the provenance of the item.

    And my point…..what you are consuming is as fundamental as the taste and you cannot disconnect the two.

  • I am with the troubled critic. Wine is about passion, art, devotion, seasonal changes and the winemaker creating something from the fruit he has available.

    Surely a chemically manufactured wine would not have the yearly differences that make vintages so interesting. Afterall, the chemist would only want to replicate the good vintages or the wines in demand.

    Think about it, a 20 year old Bordeaux just would not be the same if a simulated version can be produced within a few weeks. Something that takes 20 years to create, store and look forward to, should not be replicated in weeks.

  • Laurence

    My father was 70 last year – and I treated him to two rounds of golf at St Andrews. We played the Old Course, and the Jubilee course. On any rational basis, the Jubilee course is ‘better’ – more interesting holes, more challenging course etc etc. But, the Old Course has the history – I have stood and played where the greats have played (and will do next week).

    Are the iconic wines (first growths etc etc) bad wines? Obviously not – are they the best wines? (however ‘best’ may be defined) – at most, arguable. Do they have that combination of factors that make them special – most definitely.

    Would I object to a ‘manufactured’ bottle? not at all – I would enjoy it tremendously. But would I smile, tell my friends, look back on it with affection, and know I was privileged to have shared something with people I have never known or will know?

  • I tend to agree with Andrew Henderson in that most of wine lovers (myself included) will most certainly not have the chance to smell/taste the “pearls” of the wine world.

    I believe the replica wine will be like a picture in time of a real wine, taken at a time when the wine was at its peak. Of course you would not buy this wine to cellar it or to show off to your friends, but to enjoy its magnificence… at an affordable price. To make things fair and to protect the right to creativity, these replicas should clearly state the real wines they mimic, together with the necessary details (vintage, aging time and conditions, etc.).

    These replicas could help thousands of wine lovers to build a real wines framework populated with samples of high value and quality instead of the random daily experiences which constitute our framework. Not that randomness wouldn’t have its appeal :-)

    I really hope this will happen before I have lost all my tasting/smelling skills! :-)

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