Kiwi Wine Science

I have spent the past couple of weeks doing some work at Lincoln University‘s Centre for Viticulture and Oenology (CV&O).  My role there has been to update their website, including setting up a blog and writing a bunch of news stories that will be posted over the next several months.  This has been a great opportunity to meet with faculty and students involved with the Centre – a very diverse bunch that includes experts in chemistry, molecular biology, viticulture, plant pathology, soil science, ecology, marketing, and tourism.

 (Ivey Hall – the Lincoln University library)

This opportunity has allowed me to get a taste of the caliber and variety of research that goes on at the CV&O, which, while small, is very highly regarded in the wine world.  Researchers at the Centre work with collaborators from across New Zealand (in academia, industry, and the government) and from around the world.  The University also draws students from far and wide – I share an office with grad students from China, Chile, and the US, and an intern from France.

I have learned about research into the wine consumption habits of Generation Y (in fact, if you were born after 1977 and are of legal drinking age in your home country, you can be a part of the latest study on this subject by completing the brief, confidential survey found here), the impact of installing biodiversity trails on the wine tourism experience, the use of crushed glass (from used wine bottles, of course!) as a reflective mulch spread in vineyards to improve grape quality, the effect of UV radiation on grapevines and the wine produced from them, the characterization of New Zealand Pinot Noir regions by sensory and chemical analysis of the wines, and much, much more.

In my role as website updater/reporter/blogger I have also learned a lot about how the Centre wants to present itself, and to whom.  In addition to attracting graduate students, as is the goal of any good research institution, the CV&O is particularly interested in sharing its findings with the wine industry.  Many projects are financed with industry support, and most are of direct consequence to the industry.  Findings are sometimes published as reports for New Zealand Winegrowers, and research projects seem to reflect the challenges and needs of wine producers in New Zealand.  Thus the V&O research at Lincoln is very much on the “applied” end of the research spectrum, and I would be interested to know if there are many wine scientists out there doing what would be considered “basic” research.  My suspicion is that most wine science would fall on the “applied” side, for the fairly obvious reason that it is tied very closely to an economically important industry, but also, and more interestingly, for the more nuanced reason that wine science is embedded in wine making – a tradition of craftsmanship and artisanship.  As such, the practice of making wine depends on the individual skill, creativity, and experience of the winemaker and grape grower, and thus carries some inherent tension with the tenets* of basic science, which, at least on the surface, suggest that logic alone should allow us to “solve” the problems of winemaking.  But, of course, it can never be as simple as this, and this, I believe, is why wine science looks a little bit different, a little more applied, than some other disciplines.

(*tenet is a strong word used here for effect – I don’t actually intend to suggest that ‘science’ is a well-defined or rigid category, but that’s for another post. or maybe a whole book…)

And this assessment seems to be in line with the image that the industry, at least in New Zealand, is working to promote.  The research section of the 2011 New Zealand Winegrowers annual report closes by saying:

“Research and the scientific process can never provide all of the answers to the complex challenges facing growers and winemakers.  Nor can it replace the role of experience and good observation by practitioners.  The important role of research remains in helping understand the word in which we our growrs and winemakers operate.  Understanding this complexity and the impact of their responses to it can help our producers make better informed decisions and ultimately make better wine.”

So, apparently, science and art can coexist, and the industry is dependent upon such coexistence.  It just might mean that the science and art don’t look quite like they do in other contexts.

Christchurch: A Reminder of Nature’s Power

In September 2010 and February 2011, earthquakes devastated the Christchurch area.  Much of the city center was destroyed by damage from the shaking itself, and some of the suburbs were impacted most heavily by what is known as soil liquefaction.  Aftershocks continue to be felt, and the city is only just beginning to reopen, let alone recover.  Still, there is much evidence of solidarity and a commitment to move forward throughout the city.

The heart of the city center is inaccessible, blocked off by chain link fences.  Here you can see the recently deconsecrated Christchurch Cathedral, slated for partial demolition after irreparable damage from the February quake.

Repairs underway at the Christchurch Arts Centre are expected to take years to complete.

Many of the city’s streets remain blocked off, detours and alternative bus routes remain in use.

A festive piece in the “Road Cone Art Exhibition” at the Botanical Gardens, a series of road cone themed works in honor of the 60,000 road cones set up on Christchurch streets today.

More damage in the city center.

Hearts on display at the Canterbury Museum as part of the Hearts for Christchurch project initiated by Napier’s Evie Harris to show support and solidarity for those affected by the quake.  The more than 4,000 hearts on display come from all over the world.

Photos of what has become known as “Container City.”  A few stores in one of the city’s main shopping districts have recently reopened inside temporary “buildings” made from shipping containers.  The area is now bustling with residents eager to return to life as usual, but sits just on the edge of the still-closed city center, in acknowledgment of the reality that still faces the recovering city.

A damaged house on the cliffs of Sumner, one of the beach suburbs of Christchurch.

Just across the road from the photo above.  It is incredibly humbling to be reminded of the strength of nature, especially when also surrounded by its beauty.

Stereotypical New Zealand

More soon on wine science from Lincoln University, but for now, everything you would expect to find in New Zealand (except an All Black and a kiwi bird, both of which I am still waiting to see in person…)

(yes, really, they are everywhere)

(kiwifruit grow on a vine! photo taken at lovely and organic La Marguerite Orchard in Katikati)

(kiwifruit buds.)

As cool as it was to learn about kiwifruit production, it is also important to note that there is currently a lot of apprehension amongst kiwifruit growers in NZ, as the incredibly harmful Pseudomonas syringae pv. actinidiae (Psa) bacteria has begun to spread across kiwifruit orchards in New Zealand.  Though the bacteria carries no risk for humans (you do NOT have to worry about getting sick from kiwifruit!), it is devastating the vines in New Zealand and an effective treatment has yet to be found.  An unfortunate and forceful reminder of how much risk is involved in any agricultural work.

On a lighter note, some spectacular views to round out this series of photographic proof that everything you hear about NZ is true:


(Mount Maunganui)

(even from a bus the scenery is incredible)





The glass is 3/4 full

I recently submitted my first quarterly report to the Watson Foundation, which, unbelievably, means that my year is already a quarter over.

Terroir and Passion as the Great Arbiters of Science and Art in Old World Wines

“To be original doesn’t mean to do strange things, but to go to the origin – nature.” – Antoni Gaudí

Three months ago, I set out to explore one particular boundary – that between science and art in the world of wine.  It was a matter of days before I realized that this was only one of many interfaces, borders, and frontiers that I would encounter – both in the world and within myself.  I have delighted in treading the delicate lines between foreigner and local, work and play, family and friend, all while living at the crossroads between several different languages and cultures.

I first landed in the Priorat region of Spain.  Here, the region itself is a play of interfaces as it maintains a distinctly Catalan identity against the backdrop of a more broadly Spanish character.  I was graciously welcomed into the home of a wine tour guide, who helped me to achieve exclusive access to some of the most iconic personalities of the Priorat wine industry – winemakers, scientists, and the president of the wine appellation, or Denominació d’Origen Qualificada (DOQ) as it is referred to in Catalan.  Through informal interviews (not infrequently over a glass of wine) and visits, I developed an immense appreciation for the passion with which wine is made in that region.  Passion for the uniqueness of the region, and thus for the distinctiveness of the wines produced there.

After becoming accustomed to the many idiosyncrasies of the Priorat – where grapevines are grown on the faces of precipitous slate cliffs and yields are incredibly small making for exceptionally concentrated wines, I moved on to the country that, for many, typifies grape growing and winemaking – France.  I spent the six weeks of harvest season working with the Dubard family who owns properties in six wine appellations near Bordeaux, giving me the opportunity to see the differences, both subtle and dramatic, between them.  Harvest season is a hectic but enchanting time, as all becomes inextricably tied to the whims of nature – the decision of when to harvest balancing weather predictions with the levels of sugar, acid, and aromatic compounds in the grapes (and these criteria taking precedence over normal sleep schedules for those in charge of harvesting the grapes).  I did a little bit of everything, including harvesting grapes by hand, but most of my time was spent in the winery, where I received on the job training in everything required to turn the grapes from more than 200 acres of vines into wine.  Soutirage, remontage, microbullage (racking, pumping-over, micro-oxygenation) are all relatively straightforward tasks, even when you are simultaneously (re-)learning the French language, but the ability to decide precisely when and how these and other tasks should be carried out – the real job of the winemaker –requires years of experience, as well as a delicate balance of science and art.

Happily, I have not found a simple or straightforward answer to the question of whether science or art predominates in these crucial decisions of the winemaker.  As I suspected when I designed my project, both are key components which can, and do, exist in harmony.  Thus my quest has been to pick apart the nuances and intricacies of the relationship between science and art rather than to attempt to definitively label winemaking as one type of activity or the other.  Though immensely complex, I have found that, at least in the Old World, this relationship hinges on desire to impart a sense of place in the wines, such that the consumer is transported to the region, even the particular plot of land, which produced that particular wine  – what the French refer to as terroir.  In the Priorat, both history and geology play an enormously important role in defining the region, and the winemakers’ passion for reflecting this uniqueness in their products is palpable.  René Barbier, the prominent Priorat winemaker who has played a key role in revitalizing their wine industry, expressed this passion for terroir eloquently.  For him, the expression of terroir in wine is an art because it is expressive of spirit – the spirit of the region, the vineyard, and the winemaker.  But to instill this personality, this terroir, into the wine, one must not overlook the importance of science, as it can be used as a tool to determine how best to express the terroir.  I have found this theme, of science as a tool rather than a solution in and of itself, has been recurrent, among winemakers, viticulturists, and scientists in both Spain and France.

In France, not only are winemakers passionate about terroir, but its existence is required by law.  The French appellation system requires that only certain varietals be grown in certain areas, and places restrictions on the ways in which they can be blended into wines.  Largely as a result of these strict guidelines, the passion for terroir is one of very few consistencies uniting winemaking in the Priorat and in southwestern France.  Winemaker Gregory Dubard is as passionate about making great wine as anyone I met in the Priorat, but his methods are distinctly different because he has a different goal.  He must create a consistent product – one which fulfills the expectations of his customers from year to year, as well as with the requirements of the appellation.  This gives his approach a more systematic feel.  Still, all major decisions are based upon dégustation – with both Greg and a hired consultant working together at every turn.  Thus an inherently subjective method, tasting, is used as the primary method of analysis, which allows their personal tastes to be imparted into the wines, with “science” coming in, again, as a tool to increase the precision with which these tastes and the sense of place are expressed in the final product.  Briefly visiting the regions of Burgundy and Champagne, I found it fascinating that the goal of consistency was paramount in each region (that I visited).  This does not, however, make for uniformity amongst French wines, but instead the variety and uniqueness comes not at the level of the individual producer, but at the level of the region, each of which producing vastly different wines.  This parallels the incredible sense of regionalism in France generally, as each region has a distinct identity, a distinct culture, and most importantly, there exists a desire to preserve these regional variations, which was, for me, one of the most captivating aspects about French culture.

Thus in my experience with the Old World so far, I have found that science is seen as a key part of the wine-making process, but decidedly not as the ultimate solution to making great wine.  Winemakers do not look to tests or analyses for proof of greatness, but rather to the wines themselves, and use whatever tools they (and their appellations) deem appropriate to achieve this.  Their decisions might be influenced by their education, winemaking traditions in their family or region, or the opinions of consultants, but primarily they rely on experience.  For instance, in the Priorat, the traditional style of planting vines was not on a trellis, as is commonplace in just about every wine growing region in the world, but as individual “bush vines” which are easier to plant on the steep llicorella (slate) slopes that typify the region.  Twenty to thirty years ago, many grape growers began to trellis their vineyards, which required building terraces into the steep rock cliffs, but allowed for plowing and increased yields from the vines.  Many growers continue to stand by their decision to trellis, arguing that it allows them to produce a better product, but some are finding the trellising experiment to be a failure, and they are returning to the bush vines, based on the results they have seen over the years.

Similarly, in tasting the must (grape juice undergoing alcoholic fermentation, or wine-in-progress) at the winery, I found it incredibly difficult to assess the quality and aromas.  Clearly, much experience is required to taste must and extrapolate to the final product, after malo-lactic fermentation (which decreases the acidity of the wine), and aging (whether in stainless steel or in oak, this will significantly change the aromas and flavors in the wine).  It is the requirement for such experience, such savoir-faire, that gives the process of winemaking its air of mystery and intrigue, and will always keep me coming back for more.

But perhaps more important than what I’ve learned about this passion for terroir and its relationship to art and science is how I have learned it.  Much of it came at meal times.  Two-hour long lunches around an enormous table with the ten or so people who comprise the cellar and vineyard crew to the soundtrack of discussion about when to harvest which blocks, the progress of the alcoholic fermentation in this tank or that, or even unbridled excitement about the uncanny abundance of cèpes (a variety of wild mushroom) this season (because to fully appreciate French wine culture, it is imperative to have an equally thorough appreciation of French food culture as well).  Sitting around the dinner table in the home of Greg and Marine Dubard, watching Greg nearly fall asleep in his plate as a result of working nineteen-hour days beginning at 3:00 AM (though he remained alert and constantly happy in the cellar – I don’t think it is possible to find a clearer sign of passion).

In France, my methods of learning have evolved as my command of the language has improved.  Though upon my arrival I understood fairly little (particularly in the cellar, where the combination of southwestern accent and liberal use of slang joined forces to render my formal French education essentially useless), the hospitality and kindness of everyone I met ensured that I never felt that the language barrier prevented me from experiencing the culture.  Rather, in the beginning I felt a bit like I was bathing in the culture – constantly surrounded by it but distinctly separate, while still able to enjoy its warmth and comfort (and flavors, of course).  Then, as my comprehension improved, the culture and community began to permeate my pores, dissolving what barrier had existed until I felt a part of it.  This transformation happened gradually, subconsciously, but the other day I caught my reflection in the window, carrying four baguettes, and for a moment I was suddenly unable to distinguish my identity from the French around me.  There were certainly moments, even days, of frustration when I couldn’t understand, or felt like I was retrogressing, but the goal of reaching a point where I can fully participate has kept me going.  It is difficult to leave when I am finally nearing this point, but I have pledged to continue practicing my French in any way I can so that when I next return I am able to pick up where I left off.

Though I had initially planned to see a variety of wine regions during this first phase of my journey, I am very happy with my decision to spend the vast majority of these three months fully immersed in only a couple.  I quickly began to appreciate the value of being able to become part of a community, which is a unique opportunity that this fellowship has provided, and for which I am immensely grateful.

I depart the Old World with mixed emotions – sad to be leaving a place where I have fallen in love with the earth, the wine, and the culture, but it is a contented sadness – a sadness that could not exist if it weren’t for the incredible experiences I have shared with people who have shared everything with me.  My next adventures, in New Zealand, will primarily take place in more traditionally “scientific” settings, but the allure of the winery has captivated me, and I will also seek out ways to spend time with the people who make wine.  People who, I have found, despite making a product that can at times be shrouded in an air of pretension, can be some of the most welcoming and unpretentious I have ever encountered.  People who are truly passionate about creating a product that sparks pleasure and, even more, a product capable of forging bonds between people while conjuring the particular plot of land from which it derives.

Jet Lag 101

After a 28 hour flight and 12 hour time change with a stop in Dubai (where I saw a $12,500 bottle of 1947 Petrus in one of their incredibly abundant Duty Free shops), I have arrived in New Zealand!  I stayed in Auckland for a couple of days which allowed me to have my first taste of Kiwi wine at Stonyridge Vineyard on stunning Waiheke Island, just a short ferry ride away.


(View from ferry to Waiheke Island)

(Wine tasting at the gorgeous Stonyridge Vineyard)



(Obligatory Eiffel Tour photo)

(Bookshopping in le Quartier Latin led me to find this perfectly appropriate title, which will hopefully also help me to continue working on my French)



(The rotating exhibit is currently one of contemporary furniture placed alongside furniture from Versailles in its heyday, and I had to include this tapestry that depicts cloning because, though unrelated to wine, it is certainly an interesting marriage of art and science – also along these lines, I learned that the theme of both the King and Queen’s antechambers was chosen to be a depiction of the god Mercury, protector of the sciences, spreading his influence over the arts – perhaps the Romans were on to something there… Something I plan to explore more!)

(the perfect sign that it is time for me to move on to my next destination!)