Winemakers Turn to MIT to Save Pinot Noir in Warming Temperatures
January 23, 2018
by Elin McCoy
Biochemical engineer Jean-Francois Hamel has discovered the secrets to how natural yeasts affect flavors and alcohol levels in wine—and why they can help combat the potential effects of climate change.
In a basement teaching laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, biochemical engineer Jean-Francois Hamel has dug deep intothe science of wine to help untangle the mystery of terroir for future-focused Oregon winery Chapter 24 Vineyards LLC. What’s under his microscope isn’t dirt but yeast, the crucial fermentation element in the winemaking process. Yeast is also part of the collection of bugs, fungi, and other microorganisms in a vineyard or winery that researchers call a wine’s microbiome, a term
certain to become the new vino buzzword, much as it has with human health.
Hamel, a Frenchman who first came to teach at MIT in the 1980s, often puts the lab to work on research projects to improve the quality of human life, as with an effort that produced biofuels and was sponsored partly by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado. Three years ago, Chapter 24’s founder, Hollywood film producer Mark Tarlov, and its famed Burgundian winemaker, Louis Michel Liger-Belair, enlisted Hamel to help figure out whether wild yeasts in their vineyards could help them make lighter, more elegant, and complex wines—even in the face of warming temperatures.
You see, vintners know all too well that famously finicky, temperature-sensitive pinot grapes can changes with the subtlest shifts in soil, weather, and climate. Too hot, and you get wines with higher alcohol, jammy flavors, and too little acidity. Too cold, and grapes don’t get ripe. Pinot needs average growing-season temperatures ranging from 57F to 61F, a very narrow niche. If, as predicted, global temperatures shoot up two degrees in a couple of decades, some regions, including Oregon, may get too hot for cool-weather-loving pinot.
Since Chapter 24’s overarching goal is to produce oh-so-seductive pinot noirs with unique personalities, this is a pretty key concern. But since the wine’s microbiome also has a huge effect on how a wine tastes, it may be used to safeguard against the effects of potential climate change.
The result of Hamel’s research is now in the bottle, in the winery’s first single-vineyard pinots, which can be ordered starting on Feb. 1. Brilliant, complex, and succulent, they’re among the best, most arresting Oregon pinot noirs I’ve tried in the past few years. Even at $120 and up a bottle, they’re worth the price.