In November 2019, twelve bottles of Chateau Petrus 2000—a rare and expensive red wine from Bordeaux, France—hitched a ride to the International Space Station aboard a Northrop Grumman spacecraft. It was followed several months later by 320 snippets of grapevine, or canes, of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. For a year, both viticultural products were exposed to the unique stress of the station’s microgravity environment.
On January 1st, the wine bottles and canes returned to earth aboard a SpaceX cargo vessel, and were hurried back to the Institute of Vine and Wine Science (ISVV) at the University of Bordeaux. Researchers have already begun analyzing the changes they underwent while in orbit, and during a press conference on Wednesday, revealed their preliminary findings. They had also, of course, tasted the wine.
The emphasis of the research, however, was more about climate than alcohol. Scientists at the European startup behind the experiment, Space Cargo Unlimited (SCU), hope that observing a difference in the structural makeup of both the wines and canes, compared with the control samples that remained on earth, will contribute to an SCU program called Mission WISE. That initiative is aimed at harnessing the potential of microgravity to produce agricultural products resistant to climate change.
This is not the first time humans have mixed alcohol with spaceflight. Before embarking on the first moonwalk, Buzz Aldrin, in 1966, famously took a sip of wine as part of the Catholic ceremony of communion. “I poured a thimbleful of wine from a sealed plastic container into a small chalice, and waited for the wine to settle down as it swirled in the one-sixth Earth gravity of the moon,” he wrote in his memoir, Magnificent Desolation.
In 1994, a graduate student at the University of Colorado at Boulder, backed by a Coors sponsorship, tried to brew beer from yeast sent to the space station, but was only able to produce a small amount of liquid. “It wasn’t very good,” she said of the results.
A collaboration between Japanese and Russian researchers, in 2006, proved more fruitful. For five months, they stored barley seeds aboard the space station. The Japanese beermaker Sapporo turned the fourth generation of those seeds into “Space Barley,” later selling six-packs for $110.
The environmental focus of SCU’s mission distinguishes it from these previous experiments, and the early findings are promising. To the surprise of researchers, all 320 vine snippets survived the stay in space. Some have since been replanted, and the results have been astounding.
“They are developing much, much faster than the normal canes—the ones that are coming back from space,” said Dr. Michel Lebert, SCU’s Chief Science Officer.
The wine, to the delight of the experiment’s organizers, also appears to have undergone significant changes.
On March 1st, a group of twelve lucky experts—a coterie of scientists, oneologists, and writers—gathered at the ISVV to uncork two bottles of Chateau Petrus 2000. One of the bottles had spent the year aboard the space station, and the other had remained safely nestled in a cellar back on earth. In a blind tasting, eleven of the twelve participants detected differences.
“With the one that had been in space, I would say the differences that I found most were with heightened floral characteristics,” said Jane Ansen, a wine writer with a diploma in wine-tasting from ISVV.
As Petrus ages, certain flavors are expected to appear, such as violet and peony. In the Earth-bound bottles, these flavors were, comparatively, subdued.
“I would probably say that the Petrus 2000 that had been on the ISS was maybe one, two, even three years further evolved that you would expect compared to the one that had remained on earth,” she said.
Analysis of the wines and the canes has just begun, so the science behind these changes is still a bit nebulous. But the absence of gravity seems critical.
“When the Earth environment is recreated in space, like on the ISS, the only parameter that changes from Earth is near-zero gravity,” said Nicolas Gaume, CEO of Space Cargo Unlimited. “This exposes life on the ISS to immense stress.”
The researchers hypothesize that this stress, promoted by microgravity, expedited the natural aging process taking place in the wine bottles, and led the canes to develop a resiliency that is contributing to their rapid growth back on earth. If their theory is correct, the implications could be significant for a future in which climate change threatens to disrupt agricultural production.
“If the vines find a way to evolve so that they are more naturally resistant to stress on Earth, then that opens very exciting possibilities for all of us,” said Gaume.