Celebrate National Wine Day By Learning About Wine Tech

by JR Thorpe
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Winemaking is one of the world's oldest industries; both the ancient Egyptians and Romans loved a bit of wine (which we know because wine jars have been uncovered in the tombs of prominent pharaohs) and there's evidence that that the Chinese were making a wine with grapes, honey and fermented rice 9,000 years ago. Since those beginnings, wine has grown into a massive international business worth an estimated $300 billion annually. Treading on grapes and drinking the fermented juice has been our way to a good time for a very long time, and it's not looking to change any time soon.

What is changing, however, is how the industry produces and markets the good stuff. Gone are the days of running around like I Love Lucy and squelching things between your toes. Now it's all apps, satellites, and deep sea containers. No, I'm not kidding — that's how you get your modern-day rosé.

A lot of the talk about the ways in which technology is affecting the wine industry focuses, understandably, on the buyer. There's speculation that in the near future you could have an "aroma profile" of a wine delivered to your email to be sniffed before purchase, for instance. (I don't drink, but I am extremely pro this idea being applied to chocolate.) However, the future's entering the wine industry on all levels, and some of them will make your mind boggle. Next time you're selecting a bottle of wine at your local, be assured that robots were probably involved in making it.

Wine Is Aged In Giant Tanks At The Bottom Of The Sea

The future of wine is a big deal, partially because the whole process is incredibly precise and hugely traditional. In a report on the wine industry in 2002, Nature mentioned that Robert Louis Stevenson called winemakers' obsession with detail "bottled poetry" — and that means that the technology involved can get supremely complicated very quickly.

One of the most amazing innovations, though, doesn't have to do with the actual production of the wine; it's about storing it — both so it can age and so that people with hugely expensive wine collections don't have to worry about thieves, rats, thunderstorms or people coming in and knocking all their bottles on the ground. What does this proposed solution entail? Putting all the bottles in a container under the sea, naturally.

The idea apparently sprung up from the phenomenon of "shipwreck" bottles, like the 170-year-old bottle of champagne rescued from a wreck in the Baltic Sea in 2010. Millionaires and wine aficionados will pay a lot for the privilege of tasting these preserved treasures, but it also got some people thinking about the possibilities of storing more modern wines in underwater compartments.

So what exactly does storing wine underwater entail? Experiments have included submerging barrels of cabernet off the coast of France and then comparing them to ones aged in a cellar (the sea cabernet was, apparently, better), and bigger "cages," containing up to 400 bottles, have been floated or fully submerged by big wineries around the world. They have to be fetched up by specialist divers. It's also, wine specialists point out, a good security measure for people with enormous, valuable wine collections, because it may offer a good alternative to storage on land. However, it's still unclear precisely what impact long-term sea water submersion might do to wines, so people are hesitant about declaring it a full-blown game changer.

Robots Make Wine

Through the ages, wine has been a very handmade business — but nowadays robots have become mainstays of the industry, often in unexpected (and slightly hilarious) ways. Automated grape picking and wine-bottling is old-school, but that's not even the half of it; robots can now sort grapes using optic automated technology, identifying which grapes are perfect and which need to be kicked out. But they're also being used to plant vines, and to monitor soil, chemical and temperature levels while traveling around the vineyard unsupervised. The latter is being done by a small machine called VineRobot that looks a bit like an unmanned ice cream stand.

The best bit about VineRobot is that, as it trundles about measuring grape color and how productive the vines are, it transmits all its data to the owner of the vineyard using wireless, so they don't need to leave their kitchen. The prototype was only produced in 2015, much to the excitement of international wine producers, but it represented 2 million euros of funding and collaborations with dozens of scientists.

And that's only scratching the surface of robots in winemaking. The Economist (in a 2013 feature titled "Bacchus to the future," of course) details more, including a device that measures how fast sap moves through vine branches and custom-made red wine spectrometers designed to tease out the beverage's many chemical compounds. Robot bartenders, Fifth Element-style, are the least of it.

Winemakers Judge Their Grapes Through An App

There's a healthy growth in technologies used to help wine growers understand just how their vines are doing — from the air above. Drones and multicopters are being used to fly over vineyards with special sensory technology that detects the temperature of every bit of soil and the vine on top of it. When it comes to wine production, temperature matters; the heat moderates how fast grapes mature, and if it becomes too hot they'll shrivel.

One winery is taking things a bit further — it measured the ways in which its vineyards reflected various types of light from a satellite, which helped to show which areas were growing well and which weren't. If you don't have access to a satellite, an app called VitiCanopy is supposed to be able to tell you the health of your grapes with a smartphone photograph. "It's no different from the vineyard manager who walks through his vineyard having a look," one such manager told The Guardian in 2014, "but as the scale gets bigger you run out of hours in the day to do this." Nobody's yet identified what to do if the drone gets taken down by a bird, but hey, it's early days yet.

Technological Innovations Make Wine That Gets You Less Drunk

Robots are all very well and good, but what about the composition of wine itself? Wine is a tricky and fickle beast, with complex flavors, and decades of tasting experience has been traditionally considered the only real way to judge taste. But some winemakers have been turning to technology to get the taste of a really well-fermented, aged grape without the high alcohol levels that would go with it if it were left to its own devices.

Using technology to take the alcohol out of wine is a fussy, finicky business. Old-school methods usually meant heating the wine to "cook" some of the alcohol off, but that also usually meant losing a bit of the wine's flavor. The trick is to keep things tasting the same while making them less likely to get you colossally drunk. Once again, technology comes to the rescue — a technique invented in 2010 uses a "fining agent" made of charcoal and bentonite to make a flavorless, low-alcohol wine, which is then added to high-alcohol stuff to make it less powerful.

One of the most discussed processes for developing lower-alcohol wine, which The Economist called "controversial," is called "reverse osmosis," and it is complicated. The whole thing is based around a technology that's also used in the processes utilized to purify household water and maple syrup: basically, it's an incredibly fine sieve. Pass the wine through this and it'll push through only the water and the alcohol molecules; remove the alcohol and put only the water back in, and you've got a less alcoholic wine without, the assumption goes, compromising on rich flavor. Is it cheating? It depends on your perspective.

Anti-Fraud Technology Applies To Vino, Too

If your interest in wine begins and ends with finding the cheapest bottle you can bring to a dinner party without looking cheap, you might not know about wine fraud. But fraud is a massive problem within the wine industry, as is evidenced by the recent case of Rudy Kurniawan, who was caught making up fake labels, credentials and corks for incredibly expensive wines, putting them on cheap bottles and selling them for enormous prices. Kurniawan was an old-school fraudster using laser printers and hand-tooled labels to fool experts, but expert noted in the wake of the scandal that less than a third of fine wine producers use anti-fraud technology in their packaging — a state of affairs that is rapidly changing.

QR codes are being used on bottles so that consumers and buyers can track them through their journey from vineyard to cellar, but others are looking into ways to leave digital or physical marks that can't be faked by fraudsters (or, in the case of tags or chips, fall off the bottle). Late in 2016, one wine system was launched that claims to be the most airtight against fraud yet, using a digital signature of collected data from every point in the bottle's lifetime to verify its provenance. It has to be authenticated everywhere it goes to be legit. Sounds exhausting — but if you'd paid $700,000 for a single bottle of wine, you'd want exhausting, too.