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Future Past

Updated: Jan 8

January was named after the Roman god Janus, who had two faces – one looking back and one looking forward symbolizing transitions, passages, and thresholds. Timely, considering recent wine world news about an update to the AI and wine intersection, and it is time to consider the long goodbye to a rarity of the Champagne world.

An update on AI and wine happened far more quickly than I anticipated. A paper recently published in Communications Chemistry by researchers from the University of Geneva and Université de Bordeaux announced that an AI program could identify wines within their sample set with 100% accuracy. Wines from seven chateaux (all classified growths), three from the Right Bank of Bordeaux, and four from the Left Bank were selected for the sample set of 80 wines from the vintages of 1990-2007. Using gas chromatography analysis and electron ionization mass spectrometry to analyze the sample set, the wine is vaporized, and the molecular aspects are recorded. Based on the training from 73 wines of the group, the AI would be tested on “blind tasting” the seven remaining wines based on the chemical signatures. This process was repeated 50 times, and the wines used for the training set of 73 and those used for the testing set of 7 would be rotated. The AI program did not miss a wine in terms of identifying what chateau it came from; however, it did miss vintage identification, as it was successful only 50% of the time. What is even more striking is that when the AI summarized the data and visually displayed it, all the wines from a certain chateau clustered near each other, signifying chemical similarity, and even more spectacularly – there were three near each other and four near each other – the data sets had separated into Left Bank and Right Bank. As we wrap our minds around the potential usages of using AI for this skill – it is a demonstration of terroir down to the molecular level, terroir as a data set, terroir as something tangible and not an elusive sense that sommeliers, wine lovers, and winemakers wax on about. What human wine experts do have, courtesy of the brilliant piece by Jancis Robinson in The Financial Times (December 30th, 2023), is the “ability to detect up to a trillion aromas, many of them extremely subtle.”

Phylloxera, the blight that terrorized terroir, made news again this past month. A louse native to North American vines but invasive to European vines took a voyage across the Atlantic and decimated many of the vineyards of Europe in the 19th century. Champagne was no exception; most vines are grafted onto American rootstock to protect against the insect. However, miraculously and mysteriously, two vineyards in Champagne survived the blight and remained on their rootstocks - Clos St-Jacques and Clos Chaudes Terres. Owned by Bollinger, both vineyards are planted with Pinot Noir, and the grapes go to the extremely limited production of Vieilles Vignes Françaises Champagne. A wine that I have not had the good fortune to taste, yet I know well from flashcards from my years of studying for exams. First made in 1969 and considered Bollinger’s top bottling, it has always been a smaller production due to phylloxera slowly encroaching upon the vineyards. Scientists haven’t figured out why it has held out so long, but they have realized that the cold winters would kill the insects – somewhat slowing the advancement of the louse, allowing the vines to survive. However, as the climate has changed, the winters are warmer, and the insect population isn’t being diminished each winter. Over 2,000 bottles were released for the 2012 vintage; the current vintage release is only 1,000 bottles. It's time to nab a bottle if given the opportunity.

Like Janus and his two faces, one is looking back to an iconic wine whose terroir is legendary and speaks to so much history, and one is looking forward to AI usage with terroir being broken down via chemical analysis to the molecular level. As I thought about the throughline between these two pieces of news, I can’t help but think that maybe AI could be used to solve the riddle of phylloxera to save some vineyards, assist winemakers adjusting to climate change, identify wine fraud, and so much more. Here’s to hoping it will solve some riddles for us and let us enjoy our Champagne in peace. . .

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