The Magic of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti

It was a lucky break. Thanks to their collaboration with the lab where I did my master’s thesis (see their most recent publication in PLOS One here) , I was recently invited to visit the world renowned Domaine de la Romanée-Conti (known in the industry as DRC) in Burgundy. This winery, famous for its eponymous Romanée-Conti wine, which comes from grapes grown in the small (1,8140 ha) vineyard (“climat”) of the same name in the village of Vosne-Romanée. This wine is one of the most cherished in the world, and comes with a pricetag that is accordingly extravagant (NPR ran a story just a couple of days ago about a book written about a 2010 plot to blackmail the winery).

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DRC courtyard in Vosne-Romanée with its vineyard backdrop.

The history of this famed winery began around the year 900 AD, with the founding of the priory of Saint-Vivant, which acquired the vineyards of Romanée-Conti in 1131. The monastery controlled the vines until 1584, when the land was purchased by Claude Cousin, the first in a long line of family-owners of this property (only 2 different families in 430 years), which continues today with Aubert de Villaine, and his nephew, Bertrand, our guide this morning, incredibly generous with both his knowledge and his wine.

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Bertrand de Villaine explains how the Corton is blended from three different parcels.

He led us into their recently expanded cellars, where he led us through a barrel tasting of the 2013 red wines from each of their 7 red appellations : Corton, Echézeaux, Grands-Echézeaux, Romanée-St-Vivant, Richebourg, La Tâche and Romanée-Conti. Each of them were phenomenal, still very young, of course (some just finishing or having just finished malolactic fermentation), but a wine cannot age well if it doesn’t begin with all of the fundamentals in place. This was a concept that I knew well, but did not understand on a visceral level until I tasted these wines. Each one different from the others, they were all unique and fabulous in their own way, each characterized by its particular magnificent balance. Bertrand explained that they assure this balance by waiting until the grapes are perfectly ripe before harvesting. Their neighbors might be out harvesting a few days, even a few weeks before this moment of perfection for fear of losing yield due to an upcoming rainstorm, for instance, but DRC will wait, no matter what. Of course with the prices of their wines, they are in a better position to take this risk than many producers, but it is a major risk none the less and results in a relatively high variability in the quantity of wine that they produce, but with an incredible consistency in the quality, which is, without fail, exceptional.

DSC_0238Barrel of 2013 Romanée-Conti 

Each of the 7 wines had its particular personality, all of them like someone you hit it off with right off the bat. But it is true that the Romanée-Conti is the one you fall in love with at first sight. Not in a stunningly-gorgeous-knock-your-socks-off-from-across-the-room kind of way (though maybe with a few years of maturity she becomes so), but in a far more subtle, delicate way. Such that your first sip seems so incredibly satisfying, but then trails off leaving hints of so much more to be discovered, and so you find yourself chasing her, praying, begging for her to reveal just a bit more. And she keeps tempting you in this way until your glass is empty, but you are not angry that she’s gone, but rather you have never felt more content in your life.

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Bottle storage of 2011 Romanée-Conti and La Tâche

In the bottle cellar we were introduced to another incredible beauty, this one a blond. Bertrand served us a 2007 Bâtard-Montrachet chardonnay, the only wine they make that is not sold (they do sell one white wine, a Montrachet), as they produce only 1-2 barrels (300-600 bottles) each year that are used exclusively for private tastings, special events, and the family’s personal consumption. It was glorious. I will not even attempt to describe this wine because words will not do it proper justice. I must simply counsel you to pray to someday have the chance to encounter such a bottle, as I have done thanks to the generosity and scientific curiosity of Aubert and Bertrand de Villaine.

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2007 Bâtard-Montrachet

I took 5 pages of notes during the visit, wanting to absorb everything that Bertrand told us, not miss a single detail. But I know, and I knew as I was doing so, that there is no secret recipe. I could tell you that they use 100% new, untoasted oak barrels. I could tell you that for the Romanée-Conti and a part of Richebourg and Montrachet they use a plow horse, named Mickey, to work in the vines. And that alternatively, they have a custom-built tractor that is the weight of a horse in order to avoid undo pressure on the soil and root systems. You could probably replicate their work exactly, but I fear that it would be in vain. There is something special, magical about this place. This is the indefinable in the world of wine. The sum that is greater than its parts*. There is an element here that no one can explain it, and I hope that no one tries. Sometimes we just need to let ourselves be captivated.

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Barrel cellar at DRC

*Yes, for the record, because I am sure that you are wondering, for me personally the prices paid for these bottles far exceed even the whole that exceeds the sum of the parts, but such is a luxury economy, and we must just be happy to embrace the rare opportunity to savor these wines in another context that does not involve thousands and thousands of dollars of expense, as I was so lucky to do here.

When one door closes…

Let us hope that the old adage holds true. After 6 months of back and forth trying to decide if I’d like to follow up my current research internship experience with a PhD in the same lab, the choice has been, at least for the moment, decided for me. The ever present financial crisis has not left its dirty little paws in the scientific coffers, either, and so the project I was considering will not be funded for the moment.

This is probably good news for this blog.

Beginning in September, I’ll be headed south, to Avignon, delicately placed on the cusp between Provence and the southern Rhone Valley. A wonderful place to be inspired, and, hopefully employed as well. While on the job-search trail, I plan to take advantage of any free time and sunshine to work on writing. For the blog but also for an upcoming book project encompassing my experiences and insights from my adventures.

One theme I hope to explore much more deeply, for the book, the blog, and perhaps professionally, is one that has been recurring on this blog : Biodynamics.  I recently read Rudolf Steiner’s Agriculture Course, the original lecture series where he outlined this practices and philosophy.  Adding to this inspiration, last week I attended a special showing of Natural Resistance, the latest film by Jonathan Nossiter, the filmmaker behind Mondovino, followed by a debate session with Emmanuel Giboulot, the biodynamic winemaker recently tried for refusal to treat his vines for flavescence dorée, a grapevine disease carried by leafhoppers. Initially faced with 6 months in jail and a 30,000 € fine, he was found guilty and sentenced to a reduced 500 € fine. But his story created a major controversy, forcing winemakers, consumers, and hopefully lawmakers, to reconsider how such decrees to treat for certain diseases are put into action, and whether or not it is justifiable to apply nonspecific insecticides when (a) an attack is possible, but not guaranteed, and (b) the treatment’s efficacy against the disease is under question. How do we weigh the competing factors against each other, the potential losses on both sides ?

The film focused on the natural wine movement in Italy, centered around a handful of producers who make wines not accepted as part of the appellations in which they are geographically located, because they do not conform to the standards set by these official denominations. Less focused on practice than on philosophy and value-determination, the film compares winemaking to cinema : an art focused so much on the future that we often tend to lose touch with and forget the past. For cinema, to protect means to convert to digital, and the viniviticultural equivalent is to attempt to produce authentic wines speaking to their historical origins through the employment of technology. This is perhaps possible, and many would argue that digitalization can indeed help us to protect much of our artistic heritage, but the film elegantly demonstrates that this is not the only possible approach. There is a more direct route to the past than via the most cutting edge technological innovations.

Châteauneuf-du-Pape and environs

Enjoy these photos from a recent visit to the south of France: the southern Rhône, Avignon and some of the gorgeous hill towns of Provence.

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The Papal Palace in Avignon

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View from Les Baux-de-Provence

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The Vineyards and Scenery as seen from the village of Châteauneuf-du-Pape

 

 

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The eponymous Châteauneuf… du-Pape.

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Châteuneuf-du-Pape vineyards, with the characteristic river stones, known as “galets”.

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The Ancient Theater of Orange, still used for shows today.

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Gordes

Wine science takes on the Chesapeake

I have just landed on home soil. Coming back to my roots, my terroir, to deepen and round out the research project I’m working on at the University of Burgundy.  I have come to spend two weeks at the University of Maryland’s Chesapeake Biological Laboratory, with our collaborator Michael Gonsior.

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They grow wine in the Chesapeake?  Actually its possible… I’ll have to find out (in any case this weekend I’ll be spending some time in another surprising wine region, at Galer Estate in western Pennsylvania).  But that’s not the reason I’m here.  I am here to work with environmental chemists, to learn their methods, typically applied to marine water or other environmental samples, and apply them to wine.  This collaboration started a couple of years ago, Gonsior and my mentor, Régis Gougeon having been introduced by another non-wine collaborator, Phillipe Schmitt-Kopplin (whose lab in Munich I spent three weeks in back in March), and the research looks quite promising.

In brief we are using fluorescence spectroscopy methods to study the global signatures of different wines.  This has been done before (see Airado-Rodrígeuz et al., 2011), but we hope to combine the information gleaned from the “fluo”, as it is affectionately called (at least in French) with our already well-developed metabolomics approach (see Gougeon et al., 2009; Liger-Belair et al., 2009; Roullier-Gall et al., 2014) to gain a more well-rounded view of a wine and the effects of different factors, such as terroir and bottle age (Roullier-Gall et al., 2014), cooperage (Gougeon et al., 2009), or vinification choices. Early results were presented at WAC by Christian Coelho and Chloé Roullier-Gall.

 

Personally, this experience brings me full circle, in a way, as a major part of my chemistry training took place in an environmental context (my senior thesis, at Haverford College, was carried out in Biogeochemist Helen White’s lab), and I am looking forward to seeing how my project and intentions are received in such an environment, seeing that I work on a very different substrate, with very different stakes and objectives.  This was less of a factor in Munich, as the collaboration is a long-standing one, and several PhD students have already passed through their lab, desensitizing them to what might otherwise seem a strange topic in the context of the “Environmental Health” focus of that particular institute.

 

Additionally, this puts the study of wine in a new context for me, one that is less bathed in wine than the French context I have been working in. Though in Munich wine is not the beverage of choice either, the lab’s PI (Schmitt-Kopplin) is French, and has a vested personal interested in wine.  In the US, particularly outside of the more longstanding winemaking regions, wine is often viewed quite differently from in the Old World, particularly France, as America does not have the longstanding, deep-rooted history into which the vines and wine issue from them, spread their roots.  I’m looking forward to seeing (and sharing!) how this all plays out during my stay.

 

 

Airado-Rodrígeuz, D., Durán-Merás, I., Galeano-Díaz, T., Wold, J. P. Front-face fluorescence spectroscopy: A new tool for control in the wine industry. J. Food Comp. Anal. 2011, 24, 257-264.

Gougeon, R. D.; Lucio, M.; Frommberger, M.; Peyron, D.; Chassagne, D.; Alexandre, H.; Feuillat, F.; Voilley, A.; Cayot, P.; Gebefügi, I.; Hertkorn, N.; Schmitt-Kopplin, P. The chemodiversity of wines can reveal a metabologeography expression of cooperage oak wood. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 2009, 106, 9174-9179

Liger-Belair, G.; Cilindre, C.; Gougeon, R.; Lucio, M.; Gebefügi, I.; Jeandet, P.; Schmitt-Kopplin, P. Unraveling different chemical fingerprints between a champagne wine and its aerosols. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 2009, 106, 16545-16549.

Roullier-Gall, C.; Boutegrabet, L.; Gougeon, R. D.; Schmitt-Kopplin, P. A grape and wine chemodiversity comparison of different appellations in Burgundy : Vintage vs. terroir effects. Food Chem. 2014, 152,100-107.

WAC 2014 Recap Series: Holistic science? The study of Biodynamics

I’ve often mused about biodynamics (some examples here, here, and here), how it should be interpreted, and how it should be studied.  At WAC, two starkly different takes were presented on how it is being studied : one from the production side, and one from the commercial side.  Both of them focused on a particular factor – quality.  This is often a primary reason cited for converting to biodynamics (BD for short) amongst winemakers, but the scientific world, and many consumers, can have trouble finding any concrete reason that the esoteric practices of BD should have such a positive influence.

Georg Meissner has been studying BD practices since 2005, in what is probably the largest and most in-depth scientific study being conducted on BD (at least in Europe – let me know if there are others in other parts of the world!). He explains the long-term project as taking a “holistic” approach, which, in theory, sounds exactly like what I have often proposed as necessary to understand BD.  If we want to understand this holistic system, we will never succeed with a reductionist approach, as we would inevitably be excluding some of the variables imperative to the functioning of the multidimensional system (if indeed the explanations of BD are correct, and its functioning relies on the synchronization of all parts of the system).

But I’m not sure where we draw the line between “holistic” and simply looking at as many factors and responses as one can possibly think of.  To me, holism implies a sense of unification, a “whole is greater than the sum of its parts” element, that we can’t necessarily access simply by looking at all of the variables simultaneously.  There is a missing link, that extra little edge that boosts our sum into a bigger whole, that doesn’t come so easily.  This project does the best that science can do, I believe, looking at the effect of biodynamic preparations (particularly 501), but seemingly not the more abstract aspects of BD, notably the role of the lunar calendar, on a multitude of factors: the soil, the worms residing in it, the vines, diseases, biodiversity, grapes, juice, and wine, and even the copper chloride crystallization (“sensitive crystallization” – a subject often spoken of in the same breath as Bonny Doon Vineyard’s Randall Graham, who uses this technique in his marketing materials) patterns resulting from it. The first three years of the study were dedicated to getting an overall picture of how each of these factors is affected by different viticultural systems (BD, organic, and conventional), and since 2010 they have attempted to dive deeper. I fear only that in diving deeper they may lose sight of the holistic picture they are striving to create, in focusing, as science tends to do, on the micro-level details that tend to be seen as disconnected from the greater whole. All of this remains to be seen, but in any case I applaud this team of researchers for their dedication and effort in pursuing a subject not always appreciated in scientific circles, and attempting, within the bounds of the scientific system, to take an approach that remains true(r) to the integrated spirit of biodynamic agriculture.

BDprepsBD Preps at Weingut Hirsch in Autstria 

Giacomo Negro, a Business professor and sociologist at Emory University, presented quite a different approach to studying BD. His work focuses on the consumer perception of BD, and he proposes that BD is a “signal” of high quality.  The work is based on the concept of “collective signals” which are one of the mechanisms by which a consumer can glean information about the products available for purchase. To study this, Negro’s work compares a winery’s scores in two important wine reviews, Wine Spectator and Gault & Milau’s Le Guide des Vins de France to their chosen method of cultivation.  The work looks at a winery’s rating before and after conversion to BD, and finds in general that there is a positive correlation of quality rating, as expressed in the scores, and BD production. He also looks at price, though here I worry that too many confounding factors may be present, as it is generally accepted that BD (and organic) producers incur slightly- to highly-elevated production costs, which can also be linked to higher bottle prices.

Quite clearly a different type of study and thus one that confronts a whole host of different issues, this work also represents a way of thinking about BD.  Can we evaluate its quality (or that of any wine, for that matter) properly by a one-dimensional numeric score?  What other factors play into quality?  Does the story of a wine count as well?  I think, in BD especially, consumers are often inclined to purchase more than simply the bottle’s contents.  Their reasons for buying may have ecological, moral, even borderline spiritual (especially when it comes to BD) undertones, so perhaps further consumer perception studies on BD wines could take aspects of this complexity into account.

WAC 2014 Recap Series : Legislation and the definition of wine’s “natural state”

How much does legislation influence our perception of what a product should be?  Wine represents a particularly fine example of this surreptitious legal sway over our intellect, particularly in France, where its production has been closely regulated since the end of the 19th century.

The evolution of this legislation was the subject of a presentation at WAC 2014 by Alain Chatelet, of the DFCCRF (Direction générale de la concurrence, de la consommation et de la répression des fraudes – General council on competition, consumption and the repression of fraud).

The story begins in 1889, when the French “Griffe law” defined wine as a product of the fermentation of fresh grapes, and nothing else.  Good ol’ strawberry wine?  Not so fast – if it is made from strawberries, it is, by definition, not a wine, at least under French jurisdiction.  A few years later, a French law banned any practices that served to modify the “natural state” of a wine.  The intention here was not to establish some early grain of the natural wine movement, but rather to protect the consumer against fraud.  At the time, all products that strayed from the most straightforward fermented grape juice could be, and probably were, the result of an attempt to cheat and swindle the buyer into buying something [cheaper] that wasn’t really “wine.”  The only practices that were allowed, were coupage (blending with a different wine to ameliorate the quality), freezing or partial freezing of grapes, pasteurization, chaptalization (addition of sugar to the must to increase the alcoholic degree in the final wine), fining, and the addition of cultured yeasts, tannins, plaster (since outlawed), or sulfur dioxide.  Acidification of must using tartaric acid was allowed, but the acidification of final wines was strictly prohibited.  Why the distinction?  In part because the practice of adding acid directly to wines was seen as overly articficial (indeed, a transformation of the acid occurs with the microbial activity of fermentation, and acidified wines are much easier to pick out than wines that were made from acidified musts).  But more importantly, this rule was a protection against an increasingly globalized economy.  By eliminating the recourse to wine acidification, the French government was effectively preventing the possibility of a southward expansion of the wine industry, because grapes couldn’t be planted where it was too hot if they were to avoid producing wines severely lacking in acidity.

Thus the initial regulation of oenological practices was based on two underlying objectives: to protect consumers from fraud and to protect the established French wine industry from competition by new growing regions.  The goal of winemaking was to produce a drinkable, sellable product, but the technology was more limited than it is today, thus leaving few choices when it came to oenological practices. But the law still shaped how people defined what could and could not be considered “wine,” a trend that continues to our present day.

When the laws governing winemaking within the European Community were first created in 1978, they picked up the same principle of the law passed in 1907 – that winemaking practices should preserve a wine’s “natural state.” A few more products were added to the “safe” list, in accordance with technological developments of the time, but in general the rules of the game didn’t change.

But in the 30 years that followed, not only did the rules change, the underlying principle also evolved to fit the new drivers in the industry present by 2008.  Now, the EU stressed the imperative of preserving the “essential and natural” characteristics of a wine.  This leaves us with not one but two ambiguous terms in the definition, leaving the interpretation and application of this principle rather nebulous. A 2009 modification authorized 50 oenological practices in the European Community (click here to download the full document: Commission Regulation (EC) No.  606/2009). 15 of these are additives, and will soon be required to be marked on labels as such, and the remainder are “oenological techniques,” which do not have to be indicated.  But there are 80 products that have been in discussion since 1999, and these products have yet to be pegged as “additives” or not, highlighting the delicate nature of defining what “belongs” in a wine (even if it is a conventional wine). Of particular interest are products that could be potential allergens, for example those that containing milk, eggs or gluten, which have been an important focus of labeling laws across the globe in recent years.

Thus we see, in this brief legislative timeline, the evolution of the legal definitions of wine and what is considered appropriate oenological practice. The natural wine debates aside, this history accentuates the more fundamental discussion about what should be allowed to go into a wine at all, and where we draw the lines between the “essential” nature of a wine and an artificial wine-like concoction.  The labeling solution is an interesting one, as it allows for a fudge-factor.  The government is going to decide what can be added to wines to maintain its “essential and natural” characteristics, but the labeling of approved additives allows the consumer to decide for himself if he is willing to accept the EU definition of a “real” wine.  If he feels that certain additives cause a wine to stray too far from its native state, he can choose to avoid wines that contain them. Whether or not consumers are willing to play such an active role in defining the nature of wine remains, of course, to be seen.

WAC 2014 Recap Series : The complexity of complexity

Complexity. Such power wrapped up in a single word. Describing a wine as complex effectively puts a big red flag on a wine review, signaling to readers a level of quality and sophistication that cannot be indicated by any other single term.

To add a bit of philosophy to the WAC 2014 mix, Professor Barry C. Smith, director of the Centre for the Study of the Senses (CenSes) at the Uinversity of London’s Institute of Philosophy, and author of Questions of Taste, presented his ideas on this often-elusive concept.

Smith asks what, exactly, we refer to when we speak of complexity. He breaks it down into two components : perceptual complexity and hedonic complexity.

Perceptual complexity is multifaceted in itself.  What sensory phenomena are we coding for when we use the word complex?  How is complexity manifested from a sensorial perspective?  First, complexity could be a result of a multisensory experience – an engagement of multiple senses simultaneously.  This, however, seems only somewhat relevant in a wine, as all wines are going to stimulate the same senses (though the setting in which a wine is tasted could certainly play a role here, as discussed in another post in this series). It turns out that the perception of complexity is not correlated with the number of components, but it is rather a sense of harmony and balance that counts.  This is not surprising – anyone who has tasted a wine where the oak is poorly integrated can attest to this.   It is not simply the sum of a multitude of component flavors that will render a wine memorable.  No, wine-derived pleasure lies is the integration of these components – the “greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts” phenomenon. Part of the “magic formula” of wine complexity could be related to the dynamic quality of the sensory experience. The order in which a series of components are perceived has an influence on our impression of complexity, so it is possible that the nature of the components in creating a sense of balance is less important than the order these components are presented in.

This idea of balance brings to mind a concept that I recently learned about in reading an old NYTimes Mag piece about junk food.  “Sensory-specific satiety.”  This is the basis for the recipes in products such as Coca-cola and Doritos, that a balance of flavors causes us to want to eat more.  The phenomenon results from the fact that dominating flavors cause our brains send out signals of satiety, but a delicate balance where no individual flavor stands out is able to fly below our brains’ radar, allowing us to continue eating ad infinitum. It seems logical that the same concept would apply to wines, and that a proper balance where no aroma or flavor monopolizes the mix keeps our interest piqued, positively influencing our perception of quality.

The second aspect of complexity, according to Smith, is hedonic complexity.  A non-complex wine might be likable, but only a complex wine is capable of arousing our emotions. The enhanced pleasure of this experience may be linked to the presence, in small doses, of what is otherwise a highly unpleasant aroma. We don’t yet know how much of this is simply a matter of certain compounds that are perceived differently at different concentrations (take the compound sotolon as an example – in low concentrations it smells of caramel or maple syrup, but at higher doses it gives you the impression that someone sprinkled curry powder directly in your glass) and how much is due to the power of contrast.  But in any case, the power of small doses of certain aromas and flavors to change the entire profile of a wine is a hugely important consideration in blending.  This is why many wines contain miniscule percentages of different varieties.  It may seem like 3% of Cabernet Franc would have no impact in that Bordeaux you’re drinking, but it’s a bit like adding a pinch of salt – a little bit of certain flavors helps to bring out and enhance others in a way not yet entirely explainable by either wine chemists or sensory scientists.

Who knew that complexity was so…well… complex ?  It takes the mind of a philosopher to wrap your head around it.