Learning by heart : Knowledge transmission and the modification of terroir

How is knowledge constructed in winemaking?  How is this knowledge transmitted across the network of winemakers? By winding through a web? Or sliding down a chain? Are the intricacies of winemaking and grape growing best learned in a classroom or by apprenticeship and hands-on experience?

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Today’s winemakers, especially in Europe, are faced with the consequences of this question.  There has been a revolution in winemaking education, not a new one, but one that has slowly but surely converted family-owned wineries from educational institutions for the younger generations, into places of reception for the pre-trained.  More and more young winemakers who want to follow in the wine-laden tracks of their parents and grandparents, are heading off to universities and technical schools, and then often to far off lands (frequently in the New World) to gain harvest experience and bring back a fresh perspective for the family business.

This raises some questions, the answers to which could be different for each winery, but which could certainly be related to the type of knowledge transmission employed :

  • How much of an impact does education outside of the family winery have on the identity of the wines produced?
  • What technologies and innovations are easily accepted into the framework of the traditional family operation, and which are rejected?
  • Can this type of external exposure change the marketing approach of the winery, perhaps toward a strategy more effected in the New World markets?

But a more subtle aspect of this alteration in how winemakers learn their craft is broached by anthropologist Rachel Black in the following excerpt from her article, Wine Memory.  She considers the transmission of sensory knowledge – how winemakers learn to identify and replicate certain characteristics in the aroma and flavor profiles of the wines themselves :

 …oenology schools from UC Davis to Bordeaux all have cellars that are used for teaching students about what different and old wines taste and smell like. What is missing in this pedagogical context are the generational conversations that often bridge the temporal and technological divides. Comparing the learning that goes on at oenology and viticulture schools to apprenticeship practices in small family wineries demonstrates how taste memory is connected to familial setting where intergenerational discussion and cumulative knowledge are directly implicated in production. The social nature of knowledge production is critical here (Herzfeld 2004). The family winery is tied to Pierre Nora’s idea of milieu de mémoire, a “real environment[s] of memory” (1998, 7). The environments of memory that Nora speaks of are deeply imbedded in peasant life. In this cultural context, winemaking is a repository of collective memory that implicates the senses in the embodied act of remembering. The modern winemaking school offers lieux de mémoire (places of memory): “a turning point where the consciousness of a break with the past is bound up with the sense that memory has been torn—but torn in such a way as to pose the problem of the embodiment of memory…” (Nora 1998, 7). The embodiment of winemaking memory in the case of the school setting is only explored through the sensory experience of old wine; it is disassociated from the embodied apprenticeship of winemaking and the historical narrative that takes place between generations of winemakers.

Thus Black suggests that the disconnect from the lineage of knowledge production and sharing could create a corresponding disconnect in the characteristics of a wine.  If the winemaking practices change, and the profile of the wine changes, does this mean that the education shift has actually changed the terroir* ?

Would love to hear your thoughts. #ThroughTheGrapevine

*Here employing (as I always will) the cultural definition of terroir, which includes the influence of the winemaker and his practices

**Please read Rachel Black‘s full article, here : http://sensatejournal.com/2012/06/rachel-black-wine-memory

Terroir : The Dirty Word of Wine

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I recently blogged about wine and science, and mentioned the difficulty of terroir as a concept, given its vast array of nuances and effective unstranslatability out of the French language.

But its just dirt, right?  … If only it were that simple.

As part of my masters program we spent two months studying nothing but the subject, and even then we only scratched the surface.  To give an idea of the complexity of the concept, our courses throughout the unit included those in geology, sociology, administration/law, geography, landscape analysis, and sensory analysis.

We had lectures and field trips, all to grind into us that terroir is an all-encompassing concept that includes everything from the underlying geology, the soil, the climate (at multiple scales – macro-, meso-, and micro-), to the ‘savoir-faire’ or know-how of the producers, and the collective social network in a region.

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But is it a concept that will ever really become fully embraced in the New World countries ?  Sure there are plenty of viticulturalists around the world who adhere to the concept, could even be considered die-hards who devote their work (and often, therefore, their lives) to expressing the terroir in their wines.  And then there are even more wineries who hype the concept of terroir as a marketing tool, hoping that this catch-phrase will help sell their wine, but not necessarily embracing the concept at its fullest.   I’ve found this to be a potential barrier between French and non-French wine pros, as the French are so indoctrinated with terroir that the idea that this concept just doesn’t exist in many winemaking cultures is simply incomprehensible.  The French (many of them, at least, and a select few outside of France as well, of course!) want to valorize their terroir, but in labeling any old wine as terroir-driven, many new world producers aren’t helping to define the concept amongst consumers.  How do we solve this dilemma?  Is it possible to have real terroir-driven wines in places where there isn’t a history of wine production?  Its certain that anywhere where the land hasn’t been too badly destroyed the geological/pedological components of terroir exist, but is that enough?  How do we judge the relative importance of the different components – the soil, the climate, the people?  Posing these questions begins to shed some light onto why scientific studies looking at the ‘terroir effect’ have such limited applicability – the concept is too complex to study with a traditional, reductive scientific approach.  So we need a new method.  Or… do we let it remain the seductive mystery that it is?
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An Urban Approach to Terroir

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Château Haut-Brion, unique amongst the Bordeaux giants categorized as Premier Grand Cru Classé for its proximity to the city, has built its centuries old tradition around its urbanity.  Located smack in the middle of the commune of Talence, effectively a suburb of Bordeaux, the vineyards of Château Haut-Brion (and its second label Château le Mission Haut-Brion) cover around 50 hectares of land.

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As a consequence of its urban location, the possibilities for expansion are extremely limited, even nonexistent.  Historically, they managed to expand the vineyard through the acquisition of a neighboring estate.  They demolished the chateau, but given that the foundation had existed for centuries, the soil underneath was not desirable for planting a vineyard.  Instead, they dug up the foundation as well as a neighboring section of road (under which, apparently, the soil had been significantly less impacted), and they exchanged the soil from the two.  This type of modification must certainly have impacted the pedology of the site, as the replacement of a mansion’s foundation would alter the soil profile to a considerable depth.  Haut-Brion is, however, very conscious of their terroir, having carried out extensive pedological studies to classify the different soils present on the property.  Their goals in doing so, however, we much more in line with what is a stereotypically “new world” vision of terroir than that of many French vignerons who adopt a more “traditional” description.  Haut-Brion used the results of these studies to help decide which varietals, clones, and rootstocks to plant where, and they work each year to harvest accordingly, in ‘lots’ more or less homogenous in terms of soil type, varietal, rootstock, and vine age.  But the viticulturalist’s goal here is not to harvest lots with diffferent “goûts de terroir” {taste of place”}, which he asserts does not exist. Rather, he suggests, the terroir participates (in concert with the other elements such as the varietal and rootstock) to determine only the maturity of the grapes, and it is the differing degrees of maturity at harvest that ultimately distinguish the wines.  He maintains that at Haut-Brion they are unable to differentiate amongst their various terroirs if all of the grapes are harvested at the same level of maturity, and thus it is on the mastery of ripening that they focus their energy.

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Such an approach, cut-and-dried, “scientific” in nature, seems to reflect their urban identity.  But perhaps also a commitment to consistency in their wines, so highly valued in a product in this pricerange.  The vignerons who subscribe to the concept of “goût de terroir” are those who value a bit of surprise and mystery in their wines, something that is seen as risky rather than virtuous in a luxury wine.  But then again, there are always exceptions to such generalizations..

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