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A Toast to Tech: What Innovations Have Shaped Winemaking Through the Ages?

 

From the ancient Egyptians crushing grapes in stone vats to the modern marvels of temperature-controlled fermentation tanks, technology has always played a crucial role in shaping the art of winemaking. Let’s raise a glass to some of the key innovations that have transformed this age-old practice!

 

Ancient Foundations

Fermentation Vessels – Early winemakers relied on amphorae, clay jars, and even animal skins for fermentation. These vessels, though simple, laid the groundwork for later advancements. Some examples of different ancient fermentation vessels:

Ancient Qvevri used for making wine

Qvevri: These large, egg-shaped clay vessels are some of the oldest vessels that are still being used today for fermenting and aging wine. Most commonly used in Georgia, they are buried underground, which helps to maintain a consistent temperature for fermentation.

Amphorae: These ubiquitous vessels were used throughout the ancient world for storing and transporting a variety of goods, including wine. They were typically made of clay and had two handles for easy carrying.

Animal skins: Early winemakers in various cultures, including Mesopotamia and China, used animal skins, such as those of sheep or goats, for fermentation. While not the most sophisticated method, it offered a readily available and portable option.

400 Barrels line the Garden Breezeway at Ironstone Vineyards

Wooden barrels: Although not as unusual as the previous examples, wooden barrels played a significant role in the development of winemaking, particularly in Europe. They imparted unique flavors and aromas to the wine, and their use continues to be important in certain wine styles today.

The Press – The invention of the press, likely by the Greeks, revolutionized grape juice extraction, leading to increased efficiency and improved quality.

 

Medieval Advancements

The Glass Bottle – The invention of glass bottles in the 17th century offered a more portable and storable alternative to wooden casks, facilitating wider distribution and enjoyment of wine.

Some examples of early glass bottles are:

Roman Bottles: Early Roman glassmakers crafted bottles of various shapes and sizes for storing wine and other liquids. Names like “square bottles” or “globular bottles” describe their typical forms.

 

Onion Bottles: These bulbous bottles appeared in the 17th and 18th centuries in England. The thicker glass at the base helped them withstand the pressure of storing carbonated beverages, sometimes including wine.

 

Cylindrical Bottles: By the end of the 17th century, stronger glass and the development of cork stoppers allowed for cylindrical-shaped bottles better suited for aging wine while lying on their side. This shape became increasingly common for transporting and storing wine.

 

The Monastery Influence
Monks played a pivotal role in preserving and refining winemaking techniques. In fact, this probably should be a whole separate article but, while I have you, let’s review at some of the innovations that are still commonly used today.

 

Clonal Selection: Monks meticulously selected and propagated high-quality vines, establishing the concept of clonal selection, which is crucial for maintaining consistent grape quality.

Clos (walled vineyard): The practice of enclosing vineyards with walls for protection and quality control originated with monasteries.

Domaine Clos de la Chapelle

Grape Varietal Identification: Monks meticulously documented and classified different grape varieties, contributing significantly to the development of distinct wine styles.

Winemaking Techniques

Controlled Fermentation Temperatures: 

 

Monasteries built dedicated cellars with controlled temperature environments for optimal fermentation conditions, improving wine quality and consistency.

Oak Barrel Aging: The use of oak barrels for aging wine was widely adopted and refined by monasteries. Oak barrels imparted unique characteristics like tannins, vanilla, and spice notes, influencing the development of renowned wine styles in regions like Bordeaux and Burgundy.

Moët & Chandon Dom Perignon Sculpture

Secondary Fermentation (Methode Champenoise): While the origins of sparkling wine are debated, Dom Perignon, a Benedictine monk, is often credited with perfecting the methode champenoise, the traditional method used to produce Champagne and other sparkling wines.

Winemaking Byproducts

Distillation: Monks played a significant role in developing distillation techniques, leading to the creation of various spirits like brandy and eau-de-vie.

Additional Developments

Appellations: Monasteries often owned and managed vast vineyards in specific regions, and their influence contributed to the establishment of the concept of appellations, which define specific wine regions based on unique characteristics like soil type, grape varietals, and production methods.

 

The Modern Era

Machinery/Engineering Advancements

Stainless Steel Tanks: The shift from wooden vats to stainless steel tanks in the 20th century ensured better hygiene, temperature control, and consistency in wine production.

Optical Sorting: Today, sophisticated machinery equipped with optical sensors can sort grapes based on color, size, and ripeness, ensuring optimal quality for the final product.

 

Advances in Chemistry/Scientific Analysis

Sugar Analysis: The development of tools like refractometers and hydrometers have allowed for accurate measurement of sugar content in grapes, which is crucial for predicting alcohol content and managing fermentation.

Refractometer

Acidity Analysis: Advances in measuring titratable acidity has helped winemakers immensely. The development of Titration, a more complex but precise method for measuring TA than a pH Meter, has led us to understand the influence of acidity on wine’s taste, balance, and aging potential even further.  

Grape Phenolics Analysis: Identifying and quantifying phenolic compounds like tannins and anthocyanins, which contribute to color, flavor, and structure, enabled even more informed winemaking decisions.

Chromatography: Techniques like gas chromatography (GC) and high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) have become invaluable tools for identifying and quantifying various compounds in wine, including volatile compounds contributing to aroma, residual sugars, and organic acids.

Spectroscopy: Techniques like mass spectrometry (MS) and nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) provide detailed information about the molecular structure of complex compounds in wine, aiding in authenticity verification, quality control, and understanding of aging processes

Advances in Fermentation Management

Yeast Selection and Propagation: Pure yeast cultures replaced reliance on unpredictable native yeasts, ensuring consistent and controlled fermentation, leading to predictable and improved wine quality.

Temperature Control: The ability to precisely monitor and control fermentation temperature through the use of stainless steel tanks and cooling systems significantly improved wine quality and consistency.

Redox Potential Monitoring: Measuring Redox potential (reduction-oxidation potential) allows winemakers to monitor the oxygen level in the wine during fermentation, influencing color, flavor, and stability.

TRUEscience system measuring Oxidation Reduction Potential

Other Advanced Techniques

Enzyme Technology: Enzymes like pectinases can be used to improve juice extraction from grapes, while specific enzymes can be employed to manage specific characteristics like color or sweetness in wine.

Microbial Inoculation: Introducing specific yeasts or bacteria strains can enhance specific desired aromas, flavors, or textures in wine, leading to greater diversity and innovation.

Microbial Inoculants Flow Chart

 

 

The Future of Wine

Precision Viticulture – The use of drones and satellite imagery allows for detailed monitoring of vineyards, enabling winemakers to tailor their practices to specific microclimates and optimize grape health.

Drone monitoring a vineyard

Smart sensors – Sensors installed in vineyards can monitor various parameters like soil moisture, temperature, and leaf water potential, providing real-time data for informed decision-making.

Winemaking Techniques

Membrane filtration: This technique can be used to selectively remove unwanted compounds like harsh tannins or spoilage organisms, potentially leading to wines with improved taste profiles and extended shelf life.

Membrane Filtration System

Post-harvest maceration techniques: Innovative techniques like flash detente and pulsed electric field can enhance the extraction of desirable flavor and color compounds from grapes, potentially leading to wines with richer and more complex profiles.

Alternative fermentation methods: Research is exploring the use of non-Saccharomyces yeasts or even bacteria for fermentation, potentially leading to novel wine styles with unique flavor profiles, improved disease resistance, or lower alcohol content.

Sustainability Initiatives

Water conservation: New technologies like drip irrigation and use of treated wastewater for non-essential purposes are being explored to minimize water usage in vineyards.

Renewable energy: Wineries are increasingly adopting solar panels or wind turbines to reduce their reliance on fossil fuels and minimize their environmental footprint.

Sustainable packaging: Biodegradable or recycled materials are being used for packaging to minimize environmental impact and cater to the growing demand for sustainable practices.

Advanced Analytical Techniques

Machine learning: Machine learning algorithms are being explored to analyze vast datasets of winemaking parameters, potentially helping to predict wine quality, optimize fermentation processes, and identify potential issues early on.

Advanced metabolite profiling: Techniques like ultra-high-performance liquid chromatography (UHPLC) coupled with mass spectrometry (MS) allow for in-depth analysis of the complex chemical composition of wine, providing valuable insights into grape variety, origin, and potential quality markers.

Biotechnology: Research in using specific yeasts and enzymes can enhance specific characteristics in wines, potentially leading to more diverse and sustainable winemaking practices.

As we raise a glass to the delightful world of wine, let us acknowledge the crucial role technology has played in its journey, from ancient origins to the ever-evolving future. From fostering consistent quality to exploring exciting possibilities, technology remains an essential ingredient in the fascinating story of wine.

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