The headline question sounds hyperbolic. Let’s put it in context.
By Kathleen Willcox
Since life began on earth about 4.5 billion years ago, almost everything — from temperatures to land masses to the forms of life that exist here — has changed and evolved. Except gravity.
“Gravity is constant on earth, and all life on earth is structured around gravity,” says Nicolas Gaume, CEO and co-founder of Space Cargo Unlimited, the startup leading an applied research program in space that, in 2020, sent 12 bottles of Pétrus Millésime 2000 and 320 growing vines of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon to the International Space Station (ISS). “Everything down to the cellular structure of plants and animals is optimized for gravity. When you remove gravity, you add a stress that is immense.”
The wine and space project, dubbed Mission WISE, sent the bottles and vines to the ISS for 438 days and 19 hours. On January 14, 2021, they returned to earth after a journey of 300 million kilometers in zero gravity. The replanting of the space vines took place in February 2022.
Now, the Space Cargo team is revealing initial findings produced in collaboration with researchers at the Institut Francais de la Vigne ed du Vin in Bordeaux and at FAU Erlanger-Nuremberg Univeristy. After studying these viticultural space cadets, when compared with “twin” vines and bottles of wines grown and stored under normal conditions on Earth, they’ve found notable differences.
“We hoped to initiate a self-guided evolution in the vines by removing gravity,” Gaume explains. “Since the 1950s, we have had the technology to study the effect of selected conditions of space on terrestrial life. We thought that by exposing the plants to the biggest stress they can experience, the absence of gravity, they would return to Earth more resistant, and able to stand up to other stressors, like climate change.”
The initial findings are exciting and bode well for organic agriculture in general, Gaume says.
While he stresses that more tests needed to be done, and he declines to share specific data points, he says it’s clear that removing gravity has an outsized impact on several key areas of concern.
“Climate change has increased the incidence of downy mildew and phylloxera in grapes across the world. Because those problems are so prevalent, we focused on them initially,” he says. Indeed, in a research paper published in 2020, the Space Cargo team noted that production costs have skyrocketed up to 50 percent as growers struggle to deal with the spread of downy mildew in the wake of climate change. “Our initial finds show impressive differences in the ability of the [space] vines to fight downy mildew and phylloxera.”
Vines have also shown both decreased and increased growth rates following their journey sans gravity. The scientists hope to focus on the vines that are growing faster, a form of selection that happens in all breeding programs, Gaume explains.
In addition, the bacterial and fungi communities associated with space vines displayed what Gaume calls “promising” changes, though he declined to share specifics, explaining that more experiments and analysis need to be performed before definitive details can be shared with the public.
The bottles of wine stored without gravity, as previously reported, tasted different — overall, better. Further tests on the space wines have shown changes in the levels of polyphenols, antioxidants linked by some studies to heart health.
The most exciting discoveries are still on the horizon: next year, the team will do a micro-vinification of the grapes produced by the space vines. In 2024, in partnership with global vine nursery leader Mercier Group, they hope to begin offering these disease-resistant vines to growers commercially.
Kathleen Willcox writes about wine, food and culture from her home in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. She is keenly interested in sustainability issues, and the business of making ethical drinks and food. Her work appears regularly in Wine Searcher, Wine Enthusiast, Liquor.com and many other publications. Kathleen also co-authored a book called Hudson Valley Wine: A History of Taste & Terroir, which was published in 2017. Follow her wine explorations on Instagram at @kathleenwillcox