One of the first slides in the WSET Fundamentals of Wine class I teach traces the history of wine, how long it has been a part of human life. I used to say it’s been a part of civilization for 6,000 years. Wine was made long before the Romans introduced the vine to much of Central Europe, and before the Greeks christened the south of Italy “Enotria,” the land of wine. And while we can’t know how it tasted, we have all sorts of evidence the Phoenicians traded amphorae of wine across the Mediterranean. And then in 2017 our best estimates of the beginnings of wine were upended with the discovery of wine vessels more than 8,000 years old in what is present day Georgia on the Black Sea. Today, Georgia promotes itself as “the birthplace of wine.”
While we can prove wine was made there – we have the clay pots containing the residue of fermented grapes to confirm that – we can’t say for sure this is where wine began. Still, it’s as likely a conjecture as we can make until the next discovery, and the Georgians take their role in wine history so seriously they are now planning to create anotherbirthplace of wine…on Mars.
Speaking to The Washington Post newspaper, Nikoloz Doborjginidze, founder of Georgia’s Space Research Agency and an adviser to the Ministry of Education and Science, said, “If we’re going to live on Mars one day, Georgia needs to contribute. Our ancestors brought wine to Earth, so we can do the same to Mars.”
We haven’t even found water on Mars yet, but the Georgians are already thinking about making wine on a planet where the seasons are twice as long as on earth. Someone in Tblisi is probably working right now on a label design for a magnum of “Red Planet Red.”. I imagine there will be articles comparing Coonawarra’s legendary 12-kilometer strip of terra rossa with an entire planet of red soil. But while it’s fun to speculate on just how odd all this sounds, there are some very good reasons to pursue growing grapes on Mars. Here’s the thinking:
NASA is already proposing a Mars mission around 2034 and entrepreneur Elon Musk (whose track record of success is variable but always visionary) says he can put a manned mission on Mars by 2024. The team of agronomists in Georgia speculating about growing grapes on Mars says the project could answer important questions about the impact of radiation on plants, as well as the impact of dust and many other factors. Scientists in Georgia are already planning what they call a Vertical Greenhouse Laboratory, a design they think will be practical for early Mars colonists. Their greenhouse will mimic Martian conditions to see which grape varieties from earth could thrive on Mars. We can replicate Martian volcanic soil thanks to evaluations from previous Mars landing expeditions (it’s very much like volcanic soil from the Mojave Dessert in southeastern California).
Levan Ujmajuridze, director of the Georgia’s highly regarded vineyard laboratory in Saguramo, says, “White (grapes) tend to be more resistant to viruses, so I’d imagine they’ll do well against radiation, too. Their skin could reflect it.” The speculation at the moment is that a local variety called Rkatsiteli, a white grape that turns speckled gold as it ripens and is known for its high resistance to cold winters and hot summers, might work very well.
Maybe my idea of a Red Planet Red isn’t so prophetic after all, but a red planet white? That just sounds like another rosé. I’d rather we develop a red grape that can survive there – Marlot, perhaps, or Galactic Gamay, or a grenache for space travelers we could call Côte du Roam. Of course, with Martian gravity only one third of that on earth, it may be hard keeping wine in a glass, but I have that problem already. What a great adventure this will be, a veritable Starry Wine Trek.