Pasteur and the Beginnings of a Scientific Understanding of Wine

Publication Year: 
2004

In 1863 the French Emperor Louis Napoleon asked the great chemist Louis Pasteur to study the “maladies” of wine. Three years later, Pasteur published the landmark Etudes sur le vin. Pasteur and others had already demonstrated that yeast is a living mass of microbes, and thus had made it possible to begin to identify and control the kinds of microbes that both make wine and spoil it. But Pasteur was the first to analyze the development of wine, to discover the central role of oxygen, and show why both barrel and bottle were indispensable for making good wine, the barrel for providing oxygen to the young wine to help mature it, and the bottle for excluding oxygen from the mature wine to help preserve it.

In my view, it is oxygen which makes wine; it is by its influence that wine ages; it is oxygen which modifies the harsh principles of new wine and makes the bad taste disappear . . .

It is necessary to aerate the wine slowly to age it, but the oxidation must not be pushed too far. It weakens the wine too much, wears it out, and removes from red wine nearly all its color. There exists a period . . . during which the wine must pass from a permeable container [the barrel] to one nearly impermeable [the bottle].

Pasteur planted the seed of a scientific approach to winemaking. That seed soon took root in both France and the United States. In the 1880s, the University of Bordeaux and the University of California established institutes of oenology. The Bordeaux group focused on understanding and improving traditional French methods for producing fine wines, and discovered the nature of the malolactic fermentation (p. 730). The California institute moved from Berkeley to Davis in 1928, and studied how best to build a wine industry in the absence of a local tradition, including determining what grape varieties were best suited to various climatic conditions. Today, thanks to this and similar work in a number of countries, and to the general modernization of winemaking, more good wine is being made in more parts of the world than ever before.

pp. 724-725 On Food And Cooking: The Science And Lore Of The Kitchen by Harold McGee (2004)

Image retrieved from Zazzle on September 1, 2014.

Pasteur, wine, health
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