Genetic modification may be the Frankenstein monster of the 21st century, but it could mean wine with a built-in hangover cure.

Headache-inducing bioamines come from the bacteria that is responsible for setting off malolactic fermentation – the process by which tart malic acid is turned into lactic acid – delegates at the 5th International Symposium of the Institute of Masters of Wine in Vienna heard.

Professor Sakkie Pretorious of the Institute for Wine Technology at Stellenbosch University said yeasts – easily modified because of their simple genome structure – could be adapted to take the place of these bacteria.

But even the news that hangovers could be a thing of the past didn’t stop the assembled MWs voting 60-40 against any introduction of GM vines or GM organisms (GMOs) in any part of the winemaking process.

Professor Pretorius went into greater detail on other possible positive aspects of GMOs. A plant’s resistance to fungal, bacterial and viral diseases can be increased, he said, with the prospect of combating vine diseases such as Pierce’s Disease, and cutting down on the use of fungicidal sprays.

Other vine enhancements might include resistance to drought, sunburn and frost. Most tantalising of all is the prospect of tweaking the balance of flavour compounds in grape juice to give a wine a better flavour profile. Yeasts could also be modified to increase fermentation performance and ease clarification.

He also stressed he was conscious of the negative way that research on genetic modification was often reported. Meticulous biosafety legislation, a transparent regulatory system and consumer education are amongst the ways confidence can be restored.

Other issues debated during the three-day conference were the perennial cork-versus-synthetic argument, organics and biodynamics, and regulation.

The conference took place from 11 to 13 July in Vienna, and was attended by 250 MWs from around the world.

Current chairman Hugo Rose MW said he was delighted by the attention to detail shown by Austrian Wine Marketing Board and the Austrian Wine Academy – even the taxis outside the Hotel Inter-Continental where the conference took place had registration plates customised with the initials ‘MW’.

Written by Jonathan Pedley19 July 2002