Petrus and vines in space: Meet Nicolas Gaum, co-founder of Space Cargo Unlimited: “We encouraged the creation of a new breed of vine”

Tests conducted by the Institute of Vine and Wine Sciences (ISVV) at the University of Bordeaux showed that Petrus still had “very good wine” after being in space. At the end of a blind tasting, differences were nevertheless noted between the “heavenly” version and the one left on earth, mainly in color, but sometimes, also in the nuances of smell and taste.

» Read more: A bottle of Petrus returned from space, worth a million dollars

Le Figaro. – When we look at your background, we can ask ourselves how did your interest in space originate?

Nicholas Gaum. – I grew up in the tech world, founding or co-founding seven start-ups before creating Space Cargo Unlimited. My partner, Emmanuel Echeparre and I, fell in love with space, especially when we discovered that a lot of exciting discoveries were born inside the International Space Station where Thomas Pesquet would live. What was happening on the orbital station provided us with a fascinating field of analysis, especially about the consequences of the absence of gravity, which cannot be recreated on Earth for a long time. For more than 4 billion years, gravity is the only major parameter of life that has never changed, while huge fluctuations in other essential parameters such as temperature or light have led to plant and animal life. For example, it was cold and dark that made the dinosaurs disappear. Gravity is a great constant, a fundamental structure, and we do not perceive it. By suppressing gravity, we create a strange pressure on the living. Thus, a plant that is exposed to this stress will develop special properties and resistance to protect itself.

And what was the link with the world of wine?

My parents were restaurant owners and my family were wine lovers. I always say that I grew up with a blessing and a curse: that at the age of 14 I had my first wine with my grandfather in 1929 at Château d’Equime! I always like to make an impact, especially as I get older. My mother comes from a family of farmers, my wife is very sensitive to environmental issues, like my partner Emmanuel Echeper, we are very concerned about the environment. Above all for humanity, as well as for all species affected by our stupidity. People’s lives are at risk. When we look at the agricultural evolution of the last 70 years, always more mechanized and chemical, we can wonder about our relevance and our intelligence! One of the solutions may be in the spatial environment. Paradoxically, the latter allows us to return to a form of agriculture that we have lost. Of all agricultural subjects, vines are the most researched. It is the love of wine, and the enthusiasm of great winemakers that pushed us to embark on this adventure.

Who supported this project to send wine into space?

Denis DuBourdieu, the founder of the Institute of Wine and Wine Sciences (ISVV), was our first support for this extraordinary project that was difficult to realize at the time by more traditional research structures. Since then, his ISVV teams, including Philippe Darrier and Stéphanie Cluzet, have been incredible partners, as well as CNES Director General Lionel Suchet and the CADMOS teams. We met people who loved the place and the wine. They believed us, had this knowledge of science and technology. We understand that stress can be beneficial back to earth. Michael Lebert of FAU Erlangen University in Germany, our scientific director, has been studying plant life in space for more than 20 years, with one last project before joining us, which was to send a tomato greenhouse into orbit. We have collected all these skills. Wine contains elements necessary for life: bacteria, yeast, polyphenols, which are much easier to study than the human body.

Why did you choose Petrus?

We wanted to start with a structured, stable wine that had already been the subject of much research. In 2020, we are almost on a single diversification. Tests conducted by the Institute of Vine and Wine Sciences (ISVV) at the University of Bordeaux showed that Petrus remained an excellent wine even after being in space. After a blind tasting, differences were noted between the terrestrial version and the space version. 11 of the 12 tasters present could clearly distinguish the two. If at the olfactory level, the differences were difficult to discern, the space wine presented more color drawing towards the brick and a more floral and long aspect in the mouth, like a wine benefiting from several years of aging. Through a first battery of analyses, we discovered concrete components of differentiation. We are now going to perform more precise chemical analysis to confirm and understand these differences, to publish a detailed scientific article on the effect of the space environment on the aging of wine, at the latest this winter.

The next step was to send the creeper into orbit. Tell us.

We collected 640 vines, half Merlot, half Cabernet Sauvignon, and we placed them in a device designed with CNES, like a small box with holes, half of which was then sent to the orbital station, where it spent 10 months. Temperatures of 2 to 3 C, in the dark and almost without gravity, the other half remains on Earth, in the same state, but this time exposed to Earth’s gravity. When they come back, we replace them both. Many plants are beginning to show greater potential for growth and resistance. We exposed the leaves to water, heat and disease stress. But our work and our analysis must continue. Some legs have grown due to the lack of roots! We have opened life to extremes, and life has found a way. Space plants, by being exposed to this extreme environment, have acquired stronger resistance to untreated, reduced pressures back on Earth. He was given the opportunity to develop greater resilience.

What could be the consequences of this?

We are very hopeful to ensure the creation of a new breed. Nature has created it. In this context, we wanted to see what the characteristics of this plant are. We ensure that these features are durable. However, we can now see that these vines grow the same way after a year. We want to encourage the creation of a new breed of organic plants, better equipped to deal with climate change.

Are you trying to make wine from these vines in orbit?

We don’t have enough fruit this year to do micro vinification. But yes, next year! If the qualities are intact, we will test the entire root system, so that we can come to the market in 2024 with organic, resistant and quality plants. We have signed a partnership with Mercier, one of the largest wine nurseries in the Vendée, to offer these plants to all interested winegrowers. We want to be able to meet winegrowers’ expectations for plants naturally resistant to midge and black rot, among others, while preserving the organoleptic qualities of the grapes.

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