Picture an aircraft hangar filled with vines. Rows upon rows of tiny plants, ranging from a few centimetres high with fledgling green leaves up to one metre tall, all housed in a semi-tropical atmosphere designed to turbo-charge growth.
The floors are white, the wall and roof made of clouded glass creating warm and humid conditions.
This is the hydroponic greenhouse at Mercier Group, one of four that together contain hundreds of thousands of young plants, part of the 30 million vines that are grown at this Loire vine nursery each year.
I’m here to meet with Olivier Zekri, head of research and development for Mercier and the man responsible for overseeing the centre’s newest and most media-friendly arrivals – 340 Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon plants that have made their way here via 10 months spent on the International Space Station (ISS).
The vines are part of a wider research project from French startup Space Cargo Unlimited that you might have read about – or at least, the part where they were sent to the ISS alongside 12 bottles of Petrus 2000, and that one of the bottles (alongside its terrestrial sibling and an extremely fancy presentation case) is soon to be auctioned by Christies’ private sales department with a price estate of US$1 million.
I was lucky enough to taste another of those bottles a few months ago, and it has to be said that sending Petrus into space, and then auctioning off a bottle for US$1million to fund further space projects, is pretty smart way to get people talking about you.
The vines haven’t generated as many headlines, but they are the part of the project with the most long-term potential, particularly when considered within Mercier’s wider breeding programmes aimed at developing vines with genetic resistance to disease or climate change.
‘Five years ago Mercier provided vines for a Chinese project to send plants into Space,’ says Zekri. ‘But we didn’t follow them on their return and have not been told how they reacted. So it is great this time around to get the chance to track any changes that have been brought about by the ISS environment.’
This time, the vines were sent as small pieces of bud wood, kept at 4 degrees Celsius in 80% humidity within specially-designed containers, then rehydrated and planted on their return to earth in January 2021.
For now half of them are in Zekri’s laboratory along with over 1,000 young plants that are part of other experiments, but will be moved into the hydroponic greenhouses this June.
The other half are at the Institute of Wine and Vine Science (ISVV) in Bordeaux, being tracked by Professor Stephanie Cluzot and post-doctoral researcher Aleksandra Burdziej.
I first saw them – both at Mercier, and the ISVV – back in March, and went back this week to catch up with Professor Cluzot and Aleksandra. Frankly, it’s hard not to get excited about their growth rate. Around 70% of them (‘at a conservative estimate’, according to Cluzot) have survived and are doing well – and the biggest are now at least two metres in height, just three months after planting.
‘It is still far too early to make any comments, as all of our experiments and results have to be peer-reviewed before release,’ says Cluzot, ‘but we have begun the first round of exposing the vines to pathogens to see how they react.’
They are being tracked through every stage of their growth cycle, alongside control plants from the same original bud wood that remained on earth, to understand if the environmental factors of micro-gravity and elevated radiation have led to gene changes.
Initial DNA analysis was carried out in March, continuing throughout the growing season, with the initial exposure to mildew underway, and exposure to phylloxera planned later. In December, the second-generation canes that will be pruned from this year’s growth will be studied in turn.
‘If the vines, as we hope, prove to have developed strong resistance through their time on the ISS,’ says Zekri, ‘the next step would be to isolate the components responsible for producing these new properties, then clone and graft the vines, planting them directly in the vineyard and eventually assess the wine they produce through vinifying the grapes.
‘In two or three years’ time, assuming all goes to plan, we will then scale up the programme and begin the process of registering them either as an entirely new variety or, more likely, separate clones of Merlot and of Cabernet Sauvignon. At that point, they will be ready for sale on the open market.’
Although not, let’s hope, for US$1 million apiece.