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.

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4 thoughts on “The glass is 3/4 full

  1. Bravo! Wonderful! Brilliantly written and very moving. Thank you so much, Alissa. I thoroughly enjoy each and every entry. Love, Joanne

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