Savoring the Taste and the Science of Wine

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Researchers and experts host an evening of wine tasting and education at the museum
March 8 , 2005 - Washington, DC - Learning to taste wine properly is a lot like mastering a golf swing, according to wine importer Gray Mosby: For the best results, the taster must master a repeatable stroke, and take the same swing every time. But mastering the growth and production of wine in the face of a warming climate is itself an art, says Gregory Jones, a research climatologist at Southern Oregon University.
Jones and Mosby, founder of an Arlington, VA company called Brightberry Imports, came to the National Academies on Thursday February 17 to highlight the science of wine tasting, wine production, and wine’s health effects. A third speaker, John Pezzuto, dean at Purdue University’s College of Pharmacy, Nursing and Health Sciences, spoke about the health benefits of wine. The event, titled “Sipping Science,” had 50 participants taste seven wines as they listened to Mosby, Jones, and Pezzuto. It’s one of several public programs the museum has hosted for the general public and selected groups.
Mosby explained the finer points of wine tasting: Tip your glass at 45 degrees, and note changes in color at the edge of the liquid (even color suggests a younger wine). Hold the glass up to the light, note any hints of sediment or cloudiness, which could be signs of wine decline. Sniff the wine briefly, note the aromas. “Here’s where the purple prose comes in,” said Mosby, referring to the colorful, esoteric language of professional wine tasters. Wine contains an incredible 500 chemical compounds that can affect its taste, noted Mosby.
Jones explained how changes in climate have affected, and will continue to affect the quality of the wine and the type of grape that can be grown. Wine has an “optimum zone,” said Jones, during the growing season when quality reaches its peak—constant sugar, ripe flavors, general balance. Variations in taste and quality are largely driven by climatic factors. Temperatures affect the length of the growing season and the amount of water needed. Europe’s 2003 heat wave, for example, triggered big variations in quality and harvest date.
But warming trends are more than an inconvenience for wine growers. As temperatures rise, certain grape species may not be cultivatable in regions that have been the traditional homes to wines for hundreds of years—places like Burgundy, France. Other places, not known for a particular wine variety, may become centers for high quality wine; Jones claimed that Germany, for example, now has some of the best pinot noirs in the world. “These effects have the potential to alter cultural identities associated with wine,” speculated Jones.
Pezzuto touted wine’s health benefits, noting that the chemicals in wine and other plants provide one potential avenue toward “chemoprevention,” staving off cancer through diet and/or pharmaceutical agents. The complex defenses of plants yield chemicals that could, in theory, prove useful in fighting cancer. Three percent of the plant compounds harvested exhibit cancer preventative activity in model systems; a small fraction of those has a chance of actually becoming a preventative drug.
A chemical unique to grapes called resveratrol appears to be one of the few that has cancer preventing qualities; it has been proven active in early animal work. Because the fermentation process forces resveratrol out of the skin of the grape, red wine contains significantly more resveratrol than does conventional grape juice. Research into resveratrol is ongoing.
Above all, said Mosby, it’s important to enjoy wine. “Savor it,” he told the crowd as they sniffed their glasses.