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October 05, 2015

Merlots Under the Microscope

Wine can be a catalyst of microscopic and biological tales of fortune, or misfortune, as the case may be.  But while you are popping a cork, let me also pop these wine micro-wisdoms.   So check the vintage, raise a glass, and let’s see how wine looks under a microscope.

Wine micro-wisdoms #1- It takes two separate steps, with two separate yeasts to make a wine

According to the book Molecular Wine Biology,  it’s a two-step process to make a good wine.  Step 1 involves the yeast in primary fermentation; saccharomyces yeasts in an aerobic environment.  A very specific yeast is used with genetic markers to monitor that ensure development of the wine remains the same from batch to batch. This is where saccharomyces does 70% of her work to make a good wine and occurs within 5-7 days.  Yeast and air are both key ingredients to how saccharomyces reproduce at the proper rate.

Picture Source: http://wineserver.ucdavis.edu/industry/enology/winemicro/wineyeast/saccharomyces_cerevisiae.html

The second stage of development, or secondary fermentation, is an anaerobic process and lasts 2-3 weeks. Air exposure must be at a complete minimum for this process to work; as saccharomyces eats all the available sugars and nutrients.

Wine micro-wisdoms #2- Wine’s oldest cellar was found in Armenia 

A vintage not likely to be found by collectors, the earliest wine making supplies were found in Armenia and date back to over 6000 years ago. If you can imagine, there were humans 6000 years ago that were already harvesting micro-biology to human will! The wines did have a lot in common with the modern day wines, they used grapes that were nearly identical genetically to wine grapes we use today.

Wine micro-wisdoms #3- Today’s food preservation was a direct result of wine

In 1852, Napoleon III wanted to find a  cure for the dreaded “wine diseases”.  Wine diseases, particularly wine souring, were making wine unpalatable.   The Emperor commissioned Louis Pasteur to find a cause and solution to the unsavory wine problem. Lois Pasteur realized that there were specific micro-biology present in the wines that were affected by wine souring; and therefore created his famous process of applying heat and minimizing exposure to bacteria in the atmosphere now known as pasteurization.

Wine micro-wisdoms #4- Olive oil was used to prevent oxidation

When wine is exposed to oxygen for long periods of time, oxidation occurs. This process occurs as the tannins  are oxidized, producing hydrogen peroxide and the ethanol (the actual alcohol part of  the wine) is changed into acetaldehyde.  Prior to our uses of corks to resolve this issue, the Roman used olive oil as a fix for oxidation in wines.  In fact, the oldest known bottle of wine dates back from 325 A.D. and has a large film of olive oil to reduce the wine’s breakdown.

From the earliest known harnessing of microbes for the benefits of humans, to pasteurization, to olive oil, wine plays a pretty interesting role in microscopic and chemical applications today.  So if your of age, go ahead and open a bottle, grab a glass, let it breathe and enjoy…….responsibly, of course!