Scottish treasure in Burgundy : A tale of whisky, terroir, and biofilms

A secret treasure lies beneath the little house off the main road in a tiny village in Burgundy. A treasure one wouldn’t expect to find in this region monopolized by the grape vine.  A pot of thousands upon thousands of liters of liquid gold.

IMG_0782 Cellars at Michel Couvreur Whisky

Appropriately located, the cellars of Michel Couvreur Scotch Whiskies, a minuscule operation led by a team of 3 dedicated employees, are found in Bouze-les-Beaune. The village is named for the nearby river Bouzaise, named for the Celtic word “bosa”, meaning pocket of water, which later evolved into “bouse” in medieval English, and then the contemporary equivalent, “Booze.”  But despite this nominal link to spirits, one would never know what lies in the cellars of the unmarked house.

 The cellars, dug out by Michel Couvreur himself to a depth of 15 meters, are a fantasyland evoking an underground scene in The Lord of the Rings.  The trickling sound of an underground source fills the damp air and the walls are covered in a wet, slimy substance.  A biofilm of microorganisms that seem to thrive in the humid atmosphere, sipping in the alcohol vapors as they grow.

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This, according to Blend master Jean-Arnaud Frantzen, is the terroir of the locale of “Finishing,” or the aging of whiskies in 500 L wooden casks. Whether this represents a “true” terroir is of course debatable, but it is clear that the aging environment has an impact.  The level of humidity will dictate, by the law of partial pressures, the alcoholic composition of the angel’s share (the portion of a cask’s contents that evaporates over time) and thus of the final alcoholic composition of the whisky remaining in the barrel.  But might the environment have even more of an influence than this? Perhaps an influence from the biofilms, which, like the black fungus characterizing the walls of buildings in the region of Cognac, Baudoinia compniacensis (aka Torula compniacensis) flourish in the presence of alcohol vapors?  Or the depth below the surface?  We all felt a slowing of our own internal rhythms upon descending into this cool, dark space, pressurized place, why couldn’t this have an effect on the whiskies as well?

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Biofilms on the cellar walls at Michel Couvreur

But this terroir of “élevage,” as this type of slow, deliberate aging of alcohol is referred to in France, is difficult to pinpoint, difficult to define. All the more complicated by the fact that these whiskies have, in effect, a multiplicity of terroirs.  The barley is grown, harvested, and transformed into alcohol in Scotland (and, apparently, individual ‘terroirs’ of barley fields are effectively nonexistent, the ‘taste of place’ not seeming to infuse into a perennial plant that is then severely transformed into a distilled product).  The ‘mother’ alcohol is then shipped to France, where it is funneled into specially chosen casks.  These casks are full of history, which they subsequently instill into the whisky with which they are impregnated.

Michel Couvreur Whiskies chooses each cask individually.  The histories of the casks can be quite varied, but they all contained a potent, richly aromatic wine for a period of 40 to 50 years. The most typically used casks are those of Sherry wines, but also sought-after are variants such as Pedro Ximénez, the local sherry-like wine, Vin Jaune from the Jura region, or Colheita and Tawny Ports.  The casks are shipped to Bouze-les-Beaune immediately after being emptied (when regulations allow, Couvreur prefer to ship the casks filled, as dryness is the enemy of wooden casks, making them vulnerable to spoilage and prone to leakage later on) and are refilled, without rinsing or the addition of sulfur, with the mother alcohol.  Then the casks are sealed and stocked, for 3, 8, 10, 20… years – as long as it takes to achieve the desired result.

Frantzen adheres to a philosophy of the 8-year plan for whiskies.  During the first three years the grains of the original alcohol tend to dominate.  Then the whiskies enter the adolescent phase, commencing their maturity but with remaining marks of hotness and youth from the alcohol.  Around the 8 year point, the whisky begins to integrate and complexify, ultimately reaching a point of balance – the sweet spot where you aren’t whopped over the head with alcohol when you take a sniff, and you notice a proper level of complexity.

This complexity can be overdone however, spinning out of control and going more towards overwhelming than enjoyable. Towards the end of its life in barrel, the whisky begins to take on more of the aromas that reflect the history of the barrel, seemingly reverting to a reflection of the barrel’s unique aroma fingerprint. This fascinating transformation (that should be carefully considered in attempting to understand the aging processes of any alcoholic beverage, including wine), can, unfortunately, go too far.  The sweet spot can give way to earthy, mushroomy, woody, sherry-like aromas that overpower the freshness of the cereals and ultimately destroy the complexity that is so prized in a quality whisky.  The difficulty is that the point of maturity, and thus of overripeness, is different for each barrel.  Frantzen compares this to individual human beings – we don’t all age at the same rate, with genetics, and more importantly, lifestyle, playing an important role in whether we look and feel our age.  Someone who leads a high-stress lifestyle might feel ‘older’ at 40 than an individual who has learned to manage their stress.

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My personal favorite name for a whisky, “Intravagan’za” is meant to evoke the complexity, sparkle, explosion of this whisky in the mouth, all with measured restraint, internalizing the extravaganza. 

Besides overaging, other factors can lead to imbalance in whisky.  The problem is primarily due to attempts to ‘modernize’ the production process, using shortcuts to mature a whisky in a reduced amount of time, and thus turn a profit more quickly.  This is the general trend of innovation in whisky production, with some trial being more effective than others.  Tests have been run on the fineness of the grind used to produce the base alcohol, with higher surface area thought to give more complexity to the resulting distillate. The use of different yeast strains, as in winemaking and beer brewing, is used to alter the aroma profile of the base alcohol (note that in whisky production, as for beer, spontaneous fermentations by indigenous yeast do not occur as the grains don’t contain sugars that are accessible to these yeasts until starches are broken down by enzymatic processes).  Microoxygenation has been considered (though the high alcohol content of the whisky clears the pores of wood casks, rendering even old casks effective microoxygenation systems), though whisky making is a very secretive process, and this method shares a similar, skeptical, reception amongst whisky consumers as it does amongst certain wine consumers (justifiably or not), and thus is not widely communicated about.  Some producers use smaller cask (i.e. 50 L instead of the typical 500L used by Couvreur) to increase the surface area of the cask and thus the contact of the whisky with wood and with oxygen. According to Frantzen, this method often results in unbalanced whiskies.  Most of this innovation occurs outside of Scotland, as Scotch producers are focused on replicating the consistent quality that they have built a reputation for over the centuries.  Thus a producer like Couvreur gives us the opportunity to taste a Scotch that has branched out a bit from its roots (in particular those aged in barrels from Vin Jaune or even Burgundy wines).

And the results?  Personally I found them stunning.  Frantzen told us that given the origins of the barrels and the complexity that they seek to create at Couvreur, wine aficionados are often particularly apt to appreciate their whiskies.  With the two whiskies I was fortunate enough to taste (Overaged Malt Whisky and Blossoming Auld Sherried Single Malt Whisky) I wholeheartedly agree – these are definitely whiskies for wine lovers, and whisky lovers too.  Any producer that puts this much passion and care into their product is bound to have a good chance of creating something delicious.

 

 

 

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“Fleeting” is the producer’s whisky that is a different blend at each bottling, eternally changing and evolving.

When Worlds (science, humanities & wine) Collide : WAC 2014

I have recently started an internship at the Jules Guyot Institute, otherwise known as the University Institute of the Vine and Wine (Institut Universitaire de la Vigne et du Vin) at the University of Burgundy in Dijon.  

For three years now, the Institute has thrown a big annual wine geek party (ie research conference) that is called the WAC (Wine Active Compounds) International Conference.  This year, March 26-28 in Beaune, I am thrilled to be able to attend, as the program promises to be quite interesting.

There are plenty of classic research talks on the schedule, with speakers from across the world including Wendy Parr (sensory science) from New Zealand, Elisabeth Tomasino (enological chemistry) from Oregon State University, and Georg Meissner (known for research on biodynamic viticulture) from the University of Geisenheim, Germany, all of whom are particularly interesting to me for various reasons.  

But the subject matter varies enormously – there are talks not only on phenolic chemistry, health effects of wine components, effect of viticultural practices on wine composition, minerality and wine aging,  but also on consumer choice, reputation of organic and biodynamic viticulture, winemaking legislation, and the sociology of winemaking, to name a few (the full program is available here).

All of this should make for a well-balanced conference that covers not only the science, but also some of the humanistic and social aspects of grapegrowing, winemaking, and wine consumption.  An appropriate menu, I think, for a subject that so naturally links the sciences with the humanities.  

But most exciting to me, and what gives me hope that these two aspects will be able to intermingle and a dialogue will occur that unites the natural science and the social sciences during the conference, is the keynote speaker. The keynote to WAC 2014 will be given by Professor Steven Shapin, Historian of Science from Harvard University.  A superstar of Science Studies.  His talk is entitled “Historical and cultural construction of the wine perception,” and I am thrilled to see a conference framed by a keynote from a history of science perspective, from an author that I have read since the very beginnings of my academic exploration of science studies, well before wine was part of my subject matter.  

All of this to unite the worlds of science, humanities, science studies, and, of course, wine.  I will certainly be reporting back.

“Does bottle age reveal terroir ?” A discussion.

When  I received the notification from Erika Szymanski’s (also of Palate Press) blog Wine-o-Scope that a new post was up entitled “Quantifying terroir with chemistry: still searching for the Holy Grail”, I knew immediately that I’d find myself responding.  The destiny became reality when I saw the article she was citing – the most recent release from the laboratory where I had started my internship just days before.

In the final phase of my Master Vintage program, I am currently doing a 6-month internship in the laboratory of Régis Gougeon, at the Institut Universitaire de la Vigne et du Vin, (Institut Jules Guyot) of the University of Burgundy.  His current PhD student, Chloé Roullier-Gall, has taken me under her wing, and is the first author on the concerned paper discussed on Wine-o-Scope.  Thus I had no choice but to seize the opportunity to respond.

The paper, published in Food Chemistry, presents findings using an ultra-high resolution method of mass spectrometry, known as Fourier Transform Ion Cyclotron Resonance Mass Spectrometry (FTICR-MS), which is capable of determining the exact masses, and thus the exact chemical formulas, of thousands of compounds in a sample. Gougeon and his collaborator, Phillippe Schmitt-Kopplin of Helmholtz Zentrum Muenchen in Germany, use this methodology to look at the metabolomic profiles of grape, must and wine samples, effectively ‘fingerprinting’ them to look for particularities of individual or groups of samples.  In the present paper, the team looks at a series over 3 vintages of grapes, musts, and wines from four different vineyards, two in the Côte de Nuits region and two in the Côte de Beaune region of Burgundy.

Vougeot 1View from Château Vougeot in the Côte de Nuits

In the grapes, musts and just-fermented wines, no major differences were seen based on the vineyard locations.  Each of the three vintages gives a distinct profile in the freshly-made wine, but wines from the Côte de Nuits and Côte de Beaune region cannot be distinguished based on statistical analysis of their FTICR-MS profiles.

However, the team re-analyzed the wines in 2013, thus when the 2007s had been in bottle for 5 years, the 2008s for 4, and the 2009s for 3, and this is where the story gets interesting.  In her post, Szymanski wonders whether this follow-up analysis was out of desperation or always part of the plan, but frankly, it doesn’t matter.  In science, it is certainly true that many experimental decisions are made ‘out of desperation’, and honestly I don’t know the motivation in this case, but what is key is that they did the analysis, as this is where the most interesting result of the study was revealed.

Unlike in the wines analyzed immediately post-fermentation, the bottle aged wines do appear different based on the vineyard zone (the vintage effect remains important, as well).  Thus there is an evolution that occurs in bottle, that actually takes us back to a point where we can see differences based on the origins of the grapes – how do we explain that?! In the article, Roullier-Gall et al. propose that the terroir “impacts the initial chemical complexity of a wine, but time – i.e. bottle ageing – might be required to fully reveal it through the in-bottle diagenesis of complex chemical signatures.”  In other words, the terroir imprints its characteristics on the wine, but these signature elements are not revealed until the wine has aged in the bottle.  Could this correspond with some of the language that we employ to talk about bottle aging?  That wines need time to “open up,” “assimilate,” “integrate,” “mature” ?  Maybe there is a deeper truth to these statements than we know – something that goes beyond tannin softening and integration.  Maybe there are certain elements of a wines terroir ‘trademark’ that are only revealed after a bit of time in bottle.

Szymanski isn’t happy with this conclusion, as she says they haven’t gone this far in the study, that they have simply shown that “different wines are different.”  This is true, in effect, but dismissing it as such overlooks the real importance of the study, which is exactly this :  some kind of change is occurring in the bottle that allows us to characterize wine metabolomic fingerprints differently than immediately after fermentation.  Key changes are thus occurring to the chemical makeup during bottle aging, and we thus need to be keenly aware of this fact when choosing at which moment to analyze a wine, as this choice of time point may have an enormous impact on the results obtained.  And from a more romantic standpoint, yes, perhaps there are important changes occurring during bottle aging that reveal a wine’s identity.  But here Szymanski is right to be hesitant – it is a key finding of this study that opens up new questions to be explored, but for the moment, these questions remain wide open (but likely tied to the 95% of compounds found that are as-yet unidentifiable).

st aubin 2014 st vincentSaint Aubin, in the Côte de Beaune, during the Saint Vincent Festival 2014

In defending her statement that this paper’s sole valid conclusion is that “different wines are different,” Szymanski characterizes the researchers’ definition of terroir as broad.  They define it as the “vine-soil-climate-human ecosystem”, which I find to be an accurate summary of the most widely-accepted definitions of terroir, such as that of the OIV (Resolution OIV/VITI 333/2010) which states :

 Vitivinicultural “terroir” is a concept which refers to an area in which collective knowledge of the interactions between the identifiable physical and biological environment and applied vitivinicultural practices develops, providing distinctive characteristics for the products originating from this area. “Terroir” includes specific soil, topography, climate, landscape characteristics and biodiversity features.

For me, then, the authors’ definition of terroir is correct and incorporates all of the key elements, not broadening it by any sense.  In any case, even if they are only saying that different wines are different, that is not a conclusion to be dismissed.  It is, in fact, precisely the point that is interesting about this paper, which is that said differences only seem to appear after a certain time in bottle.

The criticism of merely two time points not being enough is a valid one, but this is only one article, and this work will surely be followed up, by this group or another, with a longer-term study that attempts to verify and further characterize these changes over time.  The present experiment is a proof-of-principle, successfully showing that this methodology can be applied to show differences from wines from different places, and further experimentation will need to be done to understand these differences, including additional sampling points, and certainly increasing the sample size as well.

Yes it is true that the vintage effect remained more prominent than the effect of vineyard location, but this does not, as Szymanski suggests, nullify the methods ability to distinguish terroir.  The vintage effect is stronger, yes, but the profiles of the wines can also be statistically grouped, within these vintage years, by location.  This is not surprising, as year-to-year climactic variation can be much more significant than the variation that occurs between vineyards located only a few kilometers apart (the entire zone of Côte de Beaune and Côte de Nuits spans a length of around 60 km), though this is complicated by the fact that terroir includes not only climate, but also geographical, pedological, and vitivinicultural factors.

In sum, the paper presents some interesting findings, not on the existence of measurable terroir effects so much as a methodology that allows us to elucidate distinguishing characteristics of wines only after a certain amount of time spent aging in bottle.  With further research this may eventually be traced to terroir fingerprints that are only revealed over time, but for now this remains an interesting theory, one to be questioned, debated, and explored, as Szymanski has already begun to do.

Personal note to Erika Szymanski : I must say that despite a bit of healthy debate here, I adore the concept of your work and of your PhD.  You hit precisely upon the theme that launched me into the world of wine with my Watson Fellowship – that it is an extraordinary context in which to understand relationships between scientific disciplines, between scientific research and those who put it into practice, and between empirical research and artistic expression. Wine is a fascinating subject matter precisely because the boundaries between all of these are constantly being pushed, prodded, dissolved, and redefined in ways that we don’t always see in other fields.  I’d love to read your thesis once its finished, and if ever you run across material that is particularly interesting in this regard, I’d be thrilled if you’d pass it along, either directly or via your blog!