As It Happens

How does wine taste after a year in space? 'Wonderful,' says the man who sent it there

French company ships 12 bottles of Merlot to to the ISS. The research could impact agriculture here on Earth

Posted: March 24, 2021

The folks at Space Cargo Unlimited are running tests on French wine that spent one year corked aboard the International Space Station. (Space Cargo Unlimited)

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Twelves bottles of Merlot spent 14 months in space before crashing back to Earth. Now Nicolas Gaume, the man who sent them there, has finally tasted the space-aged wine that he says may hold the key to saving the world's food supply.  6:36

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Wine aged in space tastes "absolutely different" from ordinary Earth wine, says one of the few people alive who's tried both. 

"It tastes absolutely wonderful," Nicolas Gaume told As It Happens host Carol Off. "It was, you know, very unique and very exclusive."

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Gaume is the CEO of Space Cargo Unlimited, the French company that sent 12 bottles of Merlot and 320 grape vines to the International Space Station. The wine spent 438 days orbiting the Earth in zero gravity. 

Now the company is hoping to use what they learn from the project to help people back on Earth grow crops — grapes and otherwise — that are resilient against the ravages of climate change.

Even the colour is different 

Space Cargo Unlimited shipped its samples to the ISS in November 2019 aboard the Northrop Grumman supply ship. They were kept corked in sealed metal canisters, as the ISS has rules against both alcohol and glass containers. 

The samples returned to Earth on a SpaceX Dragon capsule that splash-landed in the Gulf of Mexico near Tampa, Fla., in January of this year.

The team held its first official tasting of the space-aged wine on March 1 in partnership with the Oenology Research Unit at the Institute of Vine, Science and Wine (ISVV). A team of 12 panellist sampled the ISS wine alongside bottles of the same brand and vintage that aged right here on Earth.

The wine was corked and encased in cannisters while aboard the ISS. (Space Cargo Unlimited)

"What I can tell you right now is it tastes different," Gaume said.

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"The absence of gravity did change the colour of the wine. It's a brick colour. It's a little different. And the taste itself made it unique. Some of the prunes were revealed, like maybe an older version of the Earth wine, but also in a different fashion."

The tasters weren't told which wine was from Earth and which one travelled 408 kilometres to the ISS and back. But Jane Anson, wine expert and writer for The Decanter, says she could spot the difference.

"They were both absolutely gorgeous, but again following the colour, the one that had remained on Earth for me was still a bit more closed, a bit more tannic, a bit younger," she told Euronews. "And the one that had been up into space, the tannins had softened, the side of more floral aromatics came out."

Climate change connection 

For this experiment, the team used 12 bottles of Château Pétrus red wine, vintage 2000, made from Merlot grapes grown in France's Bordeaux region. 

Warming temperatures are already affecting the taste of Bordeaux's world-famous wines, causing the grapes to ripen more quickly, changing the colour, acidity and alcohol content of the final products.

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"In a few decades, you might not be able to produce wine anymore in the Bordeaux region. So that's one of the many examples of the damage we've done to our planet and the way that climate change is affecting the way we grow food," Gaume said. 

The wine and vines were aboard the ISS for 14 months, orbiting the Earth from more than 400 kilometres away. (NASA)

The idea, says Gaume, was to get a sense of how the zero-gravity environment would affect how the wine and vines aged. 

"The environment of space is very unique on the International Space Station. It's pretty much Earth as we know. It's the same temperature, brightness, humidity, oxygen level — but no gravity," he said.

"Gravity is the only [constant] parameter of life, the only one that since life exists on Earth, hasn't moved. All the others have changed considerably over the hundreds and millions of years of life on Earth. So when you recreate Earth and remove gravity, you actually create amazing new phenomena. And this is what we're capturing."

By understanding the lack of gravity's effect on the samples, he says the research team hopes to gain insights into the future of agriculture on the rapidly changing planet Earth.

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"The simple theory is that [by] facing the absence of gravity, the plants that we sent will find a natural evolution to fight and resist, and will gain a better resilience to lesser stresses than the absence of gravity — and namely the stress related to climate change," he said.

The researchers are interested in agriculture as a whole. But wine, Gaume says, makes a great guinea pig because it contains a "key component of life" — bacteria. And it has a long history of scientific study behind it, dating back to French scientist Louis Pasteur, who invented the technique of pasteurization by treating milk and wine to stop bacterial contamination. 

Nicolas Gaume is the CEO and founder of Space Cargo Unlimited, the company that sent. (Folrev Photography/Space Cargo Unlimited )

There's still a lot researchers don't know about how the wine's chemistry was altered by the journey. The team plans to do in-depth chemical analysis on the space samples, as well as further study of the vines in collaboration with the Friedrich–Alexander University in Erlangen, Germany. 

And, of course, there will also be more taste tests. 

"It's a great material study, and obviously we love wine and we will enjoy tasting further," Game said. "But we want to better understand the impact of space and the absence of gravity on this on this liquid."


Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Lisa Bryn Rundle.