Micro-Merlots, Pico-Pinotages, Nano-Nebbiolos

Tuesday, 13 February, 2007
Neil Pendock
The future has arrived, and it’s Lilliputian. Nanotechnology, or engineering at an atomic scale, can deliver self-cleaning fridges, cutlery and socks; milk that tells you it’s gone off by changing the colour of the label, and interactive meals. This tiny new world looks set to revolutionize wine as the age of programmable beverages dawns. 
Boffins at US food giant Kraft have developed a colourless, tasteless liquid in the lab that consumers can configure as they see fit – colour, flavour and even nutrients can be programmed and activated using microwaves. Goodbye cork taint, hello programmable alcohol levels – nanotechnology can deliver solutions to the age-old problems of wine. 

Writing in the Observer in January, Alex Renton reveals the secret of programmable drinks is millions of nano-capsules suspended in a liquid, each one 2000 times smaller than the width of a human hair. With a diameter of less than 100 nanometers (itself a billionth of a metre) unactivated nano-capsules pass through the body and are excreted while those switched on by Kraft’s microwaves will impart taste, flavour, appearance and even nutritional content to a designer drink. Feel like a glass of Sauvignon Blanc? Switch on the green peppers (capsicum if you feel in an Aussie or pretentious South African mood). Syrah? Dial up some wood smoke, sweaty saddles and spice.

There are already over 200 nano products available in America, from UV blockers containing nano particles of zinc and titanium to self-cleaning socks and fridges with nano-tongues that detect bacteria and then deal with them. In Australia you can buy bread with nano-capsules of omega-3 fish oil, although why you’d want to is another question.

There are nano-filters that can convert red wine into white and even remove lactose from milk providing milkshakes for the lactose-intolerant. These post-modern oompa-loompas can remove the colour from beetroot juice while brewers use them to remove micro-organisms and even viruses. TCA molecules may be removed from corked wine using specially designed nano-filters. Ditto for alcohol and caffeine in coffee. 

Nano-encapsulation of flavour molecules will allow chefs to accurately determine how spicy they wish a dish to be perceived and tune it to a diner’s preferences, or even allow nano-capsules to be selectively activated during a meal. Activation by wine is one example. The molecular gastronomy of chefs like Ferrán Adrià and Heston Blumenthal will become even more outrageous and widely available. The dream of Willy Wonka for chewing gum that tastes like a three course dinner is no longer a children’s fairy tail as nano-capsules can be activated in sequence.   

While they are incredibly tiny, nano-wines will be too much for some anoraks, Luddites and technophobes. Standby for letters to the editor from Perplexed of Pinelands and Confused from Constantia railing against programmable wines and even those that have been engineered to have zero TCA, TBA, Brett and Geosmin, with alcohol levels tuned by nano-technology. For them a special beverage called “traditional wine” should be created that they can use to toast the simple pleasures of living on a flat earth.