Canada has given the go ahead for vintners to use a genetically modified wine yeast that is said to prevent headaches. The yeast, known by the trade name ML01, was developed at the University of British Columbia and is able to carry out malolactic fermentation at the same time as alcoholic ferment, reducing the risk of wine spoilage. It also produces fewer allergenic bioamines – chemicals in wine that produce off-flavours and that can trigger headaches and migraines. Food Biotechnologist Hennie an Vuuren, who heads up research into the use of GM yeast in BC, is currently seeking approval for its use from European authorities. ML01 has been commercially available since 2006 and is also now legal in the USA and South Africa. Unlike the EU, the US and Canadian labelling laws do not currently require producers to list the presence of GM ingredients.
Hennie van Vuuren spent 8 years in research and another 7 years to test his genetically modified yeast, dedicating much of his life’s work as a scientist to the project. Van Vuuren has said:
“About 30% of the people in the world are sensitive to biogenic amines like histamines, the reason I did this is that I myself get severe headaches if I drink wines with these bioamines in them.”
“This is the first organism that has been improved [through genetic engineering] where consumers get the benefit and not the corporate producers.”
Apparently the modified yeast doesn’t introduce any genetic material to wine that wouldn’t have been present anyway in the bacteria used for malolactic fermentation. Van Vuuren took a gene from malolactic bacteria and spliced it into the DNA of a wine yeast so the resulting yeast completes the alcoholic fermentation and the malolactic fermentation simultaneously. The new yeast eliminates the need for commercial wine makers to add malolactic bacteria and reduces the risk that toxic chemicals will form in the wine.
Back in 2006 Linda Bisson, a professor of viticulture and enology at UC Davis, said the biggest winemaking change in the use of ML01 is the elimination of bacteria from the fermentation process. However it is those bacteria that add new flavours and aromas to the wine.
In wine making there are the yeasts that are naturally present in wine cellars, vineyards and on the grapes themselves (sometimes known as a grape’s “bloom” or “blush”) and cultured yeasts which are specifically isolated and inoculated for use in wine making. Some winemakers only use wild (sometimes called ambient) yeasts but they can be tricky as they are unpredictable and can even contribute to spoilage.
The cultured yeasts run to several hundred different strains of yeast that can be used during fermentation to affect the heat or vigour of the process and enhance or suppress certain flavour characteristics of the varietal. The use of different strains of yeasts are a major contributor to the diversity of wine, even among the same grape variety. A quick check around available cultured yeasts and you will find ones that are specific to an AOC, or recommended for a particular grape or for a certain wine style.
I am not convinced that GM is the way forward but that is based on the fact that I quite simply don’t know enough about it. What I do know however that red wine headaches spoil many people’s enjoyment of wine. Not all red wine headaches are down to allergenic bioamines or to sulphites. Why does one red wine affect one sufferer of headaches and not another? Why do New World wines seem to trigger more red wine headaches than Old World wines? Before we go tinkering with GM yeasts – or GM vines for that matter – shouldn’t we be solving these questions first?