Saturday, March 21, 2015

Hangover-free wine from engineered yeast? Good wine is already hangover-free.

The promise of hangover-free wine has been in the news this week, based on new gene splicing techniques to manipulate the yeast used in fermentation. Using an enzyme called a “genome knife” researchers have been able to remove redundant copies of certain genes that produce compounds associated with hangovers, and what’s more, add in copies of genes that code for resveratrol.  All of this assumes of course that you don’t mind genetically modified yeast in your wine, and that these compounds are the main culprit in wine hangovers.
To the second point, there is a long tradition of wine consumption in moderation with food. This in turn leads to slower consumption, less intoxication, and less propensity for hangovers. The real issue is compounds called biogenic amines which are associated with headaches and allergic –type symptoms. (Histamine is a biogenic amine for example, which is why you take anti-histamines for allergies.) Biogenic amines typically develop in wine during malolactic fermentation, a secondary stage. Malolactic fermentation is driven by bacteria, because the yeast typically die off as alcohol levels rise; so the price winemakers pay for smoother wines is sometimes higher levels of headache-causing compounds. A fewyears ago a genetically modified yeast was developed that spliced the gene for catalyzing malolactic fermentation into the yeast, giving greater control over the process and promising an era of headache-free and delicious wines.

For some reason, the idea never took off. People became suspicious of GMO foods even if, in this case, they would be healthier. This latest development tinkers with the yeast genome even further, with possibly even healthier and tastier wines as a result. The role of different yeast strains in making wines with identifiable terroir and specific characteristics is vitally important (the same applies for beer and really any fermented food.) Will this new super yeast lead to an era of cleaner, headache-free, and hangover-free wines? Only if traditions hold, and we continue to see wine as a part of a healthy diet.