Barolo Wine Museum

Last weekend, while I was at the Collisioni festival in Barolo, Piemonte, I visited Barolo’s Wine Museum, housed in the sumptuous Falletti Castle overlooking the vineyards of Barolo.  

Interestingly enough, for me at least, the museum prides itself on the way in which its designer and curator François Confino “has designed a stimulating voyage that combines scientific content and poetry.”


The curation of the museum was fascinating, as it uses very simple displays to portray its vision.  Unlike many wine museums, it is sparse in its use of language, rather relying on imagery and sensory experience to send a message to visitors.  This approach serves to educate the visitor, but in a subtle way, preferring to suggest than to inform.

My personal favorite exhibition was one dedicated to the hands that produce Barolo wine.  The walls were lined with gorgeous black and white photographs of hands working in all aspects of wine production, all in a room containing only a player piano, meant to elicit an appreciation for the hands that are integral but invisible.  I thought this was a beautiful and simple concept, and paired with the stunning photographs left a lasting impression.

There was also, to my pleasure, an entire floor of the museum dedicated to wine in culture – art, cinema, food, and literature, which, I think, encourages visitors to appreciate the impact that wine has had in all facets of culture, due to its importance and interrelatedness with history, to which the museum also devotes considerable space.



El Campo de Amaral

(Jaime and I attempting to take a self-timer shot, but I think the way we were caught by surprise in this photo is indicative of the ever-surprising nature of vintage)

Some winemakers see their job as one that takes place predominantly in the winery, and others, like Jaime de la Cerda, are committed to creating the essence of their wines in the vineyard.  After our last grapes arrived for harvest and things calmed down a bit at the winery, I went with Jaime to Ledya valley, where the vineyards of Amaral are located, to see the source of the grapes that I’ve been working with so closely over the past three months.  It was immediately obvious, even before we arrived at the property, that this is a very special place.  Leyda is becoming ever more popular of a location for growing cool climate grapes, but the Amaral campo is located about 20 more minutes beyond the last vineyard, along a gravel road that gives the impression of leading you to the end of nowhere.  But then you turn the corner and can see over the Maipo river valley, and on a clear day, all the way out to the Pacific Ocean.  And in between are slopes covered in the red and golden hues of grapevines resting in the post-vintage calm of autumn.

The tour of the vineyards, which comprise 600-odd hectares, only a small fraction of which have been planted so far – with sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, syrah, pinot noir, and a bit of pinot gris and gewurztraminer, focused on three soil pits.  The first was comprised of the granite soils that predominately populate the vineyards in Leyda, as the Coastal Range is formed of granite mother rock.  This type of soil has what Jaime considers the 3 key requirements for growing vines (though, clearly, there are other very important components of terroir, especially climate and fitting an appropriate varietal for the conditions) – penetratability (the rock can be relatively easily broken up just with your hand, ensuring that the roots will be able to penetrate the rock and grow deep into the subsoil), lack of fertility – again forcing the roots to grow deep looking for food and water, and also causing just enough stress in the plant to grow quality grapes, and good drainage, which keeps the soil relatively dry, yet again forcing the plant deep into the earth to search for what it needs.

(Granite soils, typical of Leyda and characterizing some, though not the majority, of the blocks at Amaral)

The second soil pit we saw, only a couple hundred meters away from the first, was shockingly different.  This pit, composed of ancient alluvial deposits, characterizes most of Amaral, and, Jaime believes, is what makes the terroir so special.  The close proximity to the Maipo river explains the appearance of these types of soils in a region primarily characterized by granite, and alluvial soils comprise much of the most highly prized vineyards all along the Maipo river, which flows from the Andes, but the alluvial soils of Amaral are quite unique within the cool climate of Leyda.  These soils again posess the 3 keys outlined above, as the round river rocks are so old that they fall apart easily to the touch, and the bright colors suggest a variety of mineral types which, who know, might even have some sort of effect on the final qualities of the wines.

(Alluvial soils typical of Amaral)

Finally, we drove to a third pit that was shockingly white and immediately recognizable as what may well be the most highly sought after soil in the wine world – limestone.  Again possessing the three traits that characterize a good soil, the limestone suggests that this area was covered by the sea at one point in geologic history, as it is a product of deposition of calcium carbonate from marine life.  The limestone is only in a few streaky patches across some of the vineyards, but adds a third, distinct soil type to the already diverse terroir profile of Amaral.

(Limestone at Amaral)

For Jaime, at least, this is where art can come into winemaking.  His goal is to express this incredible place in the wines he makes, and this is, in essence, the challenge of any artist – to take one form, in this case a place, and express it in a new form – for us, the wine.

(Sheep left over from the region’s previously most important industry roam the vineyards, as if as a nod to New Zealand, one of Jaime’s many sources of inspiration)

(Block 901 of Syrah – planted in the style of Hermitage Syrah in France, this particular block planted at the high density of 10,000 plants per hectare)

Reflections on NZ

Here’s my recently submitted second quarterly report, a brief summary of my time in New Zealand and Tasmania:

I arrived in New Zealand with the goal of probing the scientific approach to wine, and my experiences here have certainly given me a greater understanding, but, in true scientific fashion, have exposed at least as many questions as they have answered.  As I continued to tease apart the already bursting seam between science and nonscience in the context of wine, I stumbled upon some points of tension between the scientific and ‘nonscientific’ wine communities which complicate the rosy picture of the harmonious coexistence of science and art that had begun to take shape during my time in Europe.

 I began my New Zealand experience at Lincoln University’s Centre for Viticulture and Oenology.  In interviewing faculty and students of the department and writing articles to help update their website, I was able to get a good sense of the kind of work they are doing in this wine-centric, interdisciplinary department.  The contacts that I made while at Lincoln were invaluable, leading me to attend the International Cool Climate Symposium in Tasmania at the end of my time in Australasia.  In addition, because I was updating their website, I gained exclusive insight into how the department wants to present itself publicly, a fascinating perspective from which to pursue my interest in how science is portrayed in society.  The Centre is particularly interested in sharing its findings with the New Zealand wine industry.  Many projects are financed with industry support and most are of direct consequence to the industry.  Thus the viticulture and oenology research at Lincoln is very much on the ‘applied’ end of the research spectrum.  I believe that this tendency toward applied research has two main roots.  Beyond the obvious reason that the research is inextricably linked to an economically important industry, is the fact that wine science is embedded in winemaking, 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 (though one winemaker I met, Mike Weersing of Pyramid Valley, argued that winemaking is not an ‘art,’ per se because the term implies that these types of skills are inborn, rather than learnable), and thus carries some inherent tension with the tenets of basic science, which suggest that logic alone, without special skill, should allow us to “solve” the problems of winemaking. But, of course, it can never be so simple, and this, I believe, is why wine science looks a little bit different, a little more applied, than many other disciplines.  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 growers 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.”

I was able to broaden the context for my assessment of the industry-science relationship by attending a viticulture and oenology convention in Hobart, Tasmania, Australia.  The 8th International Cool Climate Symposium brought together scientists, industry professionals, and even the famous British wine writer Jancis Robinson to talk about issues specifically related to cool climate viticulture and winemaking.  Here again, the industry involvement seemed to spur an emphasis on research that has direct consequences for the industry.  In attending plenary and poster sessions and talking with researchers and students it became clear that though a large fraction of research is concerned with how to get certain results in the vineyard or bottle, some is done using a more fundamental, ‘basic science’ approach aimed at understanding the mechanisms behind these effects.  Still, it is clear that the industry consequences are never too far from the minds of the researchers.

The most surprising aspect of the conference was how much research was presented on topics that I had assumed to be well understood.  The amount of history entwined in the wine industry means that winemakers, both in Europe and in New Zealand, tend to make sweeping claims presented in a way that implies a firm scientific basis.  At this conference it was strikingly clear, however, that many basic aspects of viticulture and winemaking are still poorly understood from a scientific perspective.  I found this particularly interesting because it addresses one of my original project questions about how knowledge is created.  In the case of winemaking there seem to be two major streams – science and historical precedent, and in my experience so far both seem to have an equally important impact on what winemakers and viticulturalists are willing to accept as truth.  One particularly striking example of this is biodynamic viticulture – a frequently divisive topic in the wine industry.  There have been scientific studies that demonstrate that biodynamics has a positive effect on viticulture, but science has not been able to demonstrate why.  The practices themselves do not seem particularly ‘scientific,’ involving esoteric rituals and timing of vineyard tasks according to cosmic events (interestingly, scientists are largely unable to obtain funding for research on biodynamics).  Biodynamic winemakers tend to be vehement supporters of the methods, even though they cannot necessarily provide a rational basis for the claimed effects.  On the other hand, these same winemakers may insist on having the most cutting edge technologies present in their wineries, demonstrating a commitment to what would more typically fall into the realm of modern science (additionally, many of the biodynamic preparations that they put on their vines are actually now factory produced which creates an interesting conflict of interest, in my opinion).

Though I have seen many examples of amicability of science and nonscience, I expected some complications.  Through some work I’ve been doing with Dr. Christopher Oze, a geology professor at the University of Canterbury, I have found an issue where science and nonscience seem to butt heads.  Originally I planned to help Dr. Oze design a research project to investigate the chemical and geological basis for the concept of ‘minerality’ in wine.  Geologic references, including ‘mineral,’ ‘slate,’ ‘quartz,’ ‘wet stones,’ etc. are pervasive in reviews and tasting notes, but while many wine aromas and flavors can be attributed to specific compounds, the story is not so simple for minerality.  In conducting some initial research on the topic, I could divide the opinions on minerality into four main camps. First, the popular literature, which employs the term liberally, but with some inconsistency in the intended meaning.  The most direct contrast to this perspective is that presented informally by scientists, either in semi-academic publications intended for the public or in casual conversation. Most (rightly) point out that whole minerals cannot be taken up by the roots and end up in the grapes, let alone somehow manage to stick around during months or years of processing and maturation until they reach the glass. Metal ions are surely taken up from the soil, but the mechanisms for this aren’t well understood and contributions of metals from exogenous sources such as pesticides, metal tanks, and bentonite clays used for fining, complicate source allocation.  The formal scientific literature, on the other hand, is marked by a stark absence of direct references to minerality.  There have been published studies about related topics, such as the metals content of grapes and wines, or attempts to empirically define individual terroirs, but no one has looked specifically at minerality.  I spent some time visiting wineries across the South Island of New Zealand and found that the winemakers and viticulturalists I met tend to pick and choose from arguments presented in the first two camps.

These discrepancies suggested that designing a scientific study was a bit premature.  Instead, Dr. Oze and I decided to begin research for a review article that will act as a call to arms to encourage systematic research on minerality, beginning with a concrete definition of the concept.  While still in New Zealand I spent about a month laying the groundwork for this article, and this is a project I will remain involved in over the coming months.  This paper has given me an outlet to think a lot about questions pertinent to my project’s focus on understanding knowledge construction and how this knowledge is presented in and out of the scientific community.  What I find particularly fascinating about this particular case is how the lack of empirical evidence has been used as ammunition to argue that minerality is not directly caused by soil chemistry, when in fact there is simply no evidence either way.  It may well be the case that there is no direct link, but no one has shown conclusively that this is the case.  So it is not necessarily that scientific and historically-embedded popular ideas about wine are at odds here, but it is a case where scientific knowledge, or a lack thereof, has clearly been interpreted in the context of wine history and culture, rather than in a vacuum.  It has been very gratifying to use my research on minerality as a case study to see this play out not only in the literature (both scientific and popular), but also in conversations with wine scientists, winemakers, and viticulturalists from around New Zealand.

The most challenging aspect of the past three months was unquestionably living in a city rattled to the core by a series of earthquakes over the past 18 months.  While I lived in an area that was relatively mildly affected by the September 2010 and February 2011 earthquakes (along with months of continual aftershocks), the damage was never far from view, as the central business district of Christchurch remains completely closed off, as well as many buildings on the campuses of both Canterbury and Lincoln (in fact, a decision to permanently close the building I had been working in at Lincoln was announced the day after I left).  Still, I felt fairly detached from the intensity of the situation until December 23, when a strong earthquake shook the area.  The event itself was scary, but tolerable, but the earthquake started off a series of aftershocks that have still not completely subsided, almost two months later.  The constant low-grade anxiety resulting from never knowing if an aftershock would hit and not knowing how bad it would be when one did was certainly grating, but spending a couple of weeks traveling to other parts of the South Island helped to alleviate this stress.  In addition, as horrible as the events of the past year and a half have been for Christchurch, it was a strange honor to be warmly welcomed into a community that has withstood so much trauma and stress. 

Overall, the past three months have provided a wonderful opportunity to be exposed to a new twist on the academic approach.  Coming from a strongly academic background, where I have worked in labs continuously since high school, I have come to expect certain norms to be associated with science.  My time in New Zealand introduced me to a different take on science, one more tied in with industry and therefore blurring and complicating the boundaries that I have become so fascinated with throughout the first half of my Watson year.

From here I move on to South America, where harvest season is nearly upon us again.  I will start out travelling across Argentina and visiting wineries there, and will end up in Chile for the majority of the season.  I am looking forward to becoming immersed in the industry side of New World winemaking to compare both with my industry experience in the Old World and the academic perspective I experienced in New Zealand.

8th International Cool Climate Symposium – Tasmania

Last week I went to Hobart, Tasmania, to attent the 8th International Cool Climate Symposium.  This wine conference covered a vast array of topics including:  establishing a standard definition for ‘cool climate’ regions, the effects of vine variability (down to bunch level), indigenous yeasts and the effects of different yeasts on wine composition, perceived complexity in wines, preventing oxidation of sparkling wine, effect of UV radiation on the biochemistry of grapes and ultimately on wine composition, wine aging, sustainability concerns, and the marketing of cool climate wine.  The conference provided an amazing opportunity to network with a wide variety of wine professionals, including scientists, winemakers, viticulturalists, and PhD students from all over the world, but particularly Australia, New Zealand, Great Britain, and the cooler wine producing regions of North America (Oregon, Canada, Finger Lakes region of New York, and Michigan – who knew?!).

(The first networking event of the conference was a visit to Hobart’s err.. interesting.. museum Mona which is also home to Morilla Estate winery, where we did a tour and tasting of 20 or so Tasmanian wines)

(a portion of the NZ contingent of ICCS delegates)

The conference was kicked off with a keynote speech by Master of Wine and wine writerJancis Robinson, who talked about the future of cool climate wine and the regions that she predicts will be coming into the limelight.

(Jancis Robinson giving the keynote speech)

(Outside of the Hotel Grand Chancellor in Hobart where the meeting was held)

In addition to 4 days of scientific (and a few industry-based) talks, the conference also included a tasting of 40+ Tasmanian wines where we got a sense of the Pinot Noirs, Sparklings, and Rieslings that are most characteristic of Tasmanian wines. A couple of the wines stuck out, such as the Pressing Matters R9 2010 Riesling, Pooley Butcher’s Hill 2009 Pinot Noir, the 2003 Jansz LD Cuvee, and the Milton 2010 Iced Riesling.

After the conference we spent a few days travelling around Tasmania:(View of Hobart from the top of Mt. Wellington)

(Wineglass Bay in Freyceinet National Park -the perfect beach for wine scientists!)

(Forrester’s kangaroo – this one was at a wildlife park but the wild ones weren’t shy either!)

(Tasmanian Devils – deceivingly cute when they aren’t ripping apart their meal)

(Tawny Frogmouth)

La Belle Salive

On Friday I was lucky enough to tag along with Drs Roland Harrison and Phil Tonkin on a visit to Pyramid Valley Vineyards in Wakari, just northwest of Waipara.  We spent several hours tasting and chatting with owner Mike Weersing, an American expat who trained in France and elsewhere before coming to New Zealand to work at Neudorf and then eventually starting his own, fully biodynamic, vineyard.  The purpose of the visit was to have a bit of a dialogue about the effects of soil type on wine, and Mike presented us with some wines to demonstrate his views on the subject.  He stressed that he feels that soil exerts its most profound effects on the ‘architecture’ of the wine in the mouth – how it feels and is structured (something that, coincidentally or not, for better or for worse, would likely be challenge to pin down and analyze scientifically).  (Soil profile display in the Pyramid Valley tasting room)

Particularly interesting was the way that Mike described the effects of soil acidity.  He explained that the French refer to certain wines as inciting “la belle salive” a particular way of salivating that feels as though it is coming from the back of the mouth, at the back/bottom jaw line.  They are particularly fond of this sensation, he said, because it is similar to the way we salivate when we are hungry, thus wines that cause la belle salive are good to drink with food because they keep you eating.  And apparently, la belle salive results from wines that are grown on more basic soils – like the calcareous or active limestone soils that the French are so fond of.  He had us taste two wines, one made from grapes grown in a block containing much more active limestone (active here just refers to the availability of the calcium carbonate – the more crushed up the rocks are, the more surface area, and the more points in the crystaline structure where ions are exposed and therefore able to interact with the surroundings), and one from a block with less. I could definitely notice the distinction, but he had also just told me what to expect, so I still feel the need to do some blind tasting to test the theory for myself.  But it is certainly interesting, nonetheless! (Try it out and let me know what you find!)

Mike told me about a tasting of Waipara wines that he organized where wines of the same varietal, one grown on clay and one grown on gravel, were compared blind.  He introduced the tasting by describing what Europeans would expect to find in each of the wines (the wines grown on clay would be expected to have a more ‘slippery’ feel in the mouth), and found that people were overwhelmingly able to identify the soil type for each wine.  It is the empirical evidence such as this, that is so frequently cited and pervasive in the wine world, that keeps me interested in this issue despite all of the debate and lack of evidence in the scientific community.  And certainly a major difference point of contention that drives a wedge somewhere in the industry.

(Limestone outcroppings visible in the Pyramid Valley)

I am happy to finally see somewhere where art and science are not coexisting harmoniously, side-by-side, especially in this instance where there is division, but ‘art’ and ‘science’ aren’t necessarily the two sides of the issue.  Mike threw another wrench into the neat little picture of art and science existing harmoniously.  When I first described my project to him, he responded in a manner different from anyone I’ve met so far.  He insisted that wine is, in fact, not an ‘art,’ per se, because such a label implies some inborn talent on the part of the winemaker.  He prefers the term ‘craft’ as it better encapsulates the idea that winemaking is something that can be learned through lots and lots of experience.

The taste of passion

(What clearer sign of wine passion can you ask for?)

It’s official – there’s a lot of passion going around in New Zealand.  And not just the passionfruit flavor in NZ’s all-important Sauvignon Blanc.  The intense passion so poignant in the Old World winemakers I met in Europe is rampant in New Zealand as well.  I started to notice it when I met Tim Finn, owner of Neudorf Vineyards (sorry – no photos of Neudorf because of the torrential rain, but I promise it’s gorgeous!) near Nelson.  We sat down to chat over a glass of Chardonnay (and then a glass of Riesling… and Pinot noir… and Viognier… yes, it’s hard work but someone has to do it!), and had quite a frank discussion about terroir.  Tim told me that he notices that his oldest vines show a more ‘authentic’ expression of their terroir, and posited that maybe this is due to the time they’ve had to establish a comprehensive network of microflora (namely, mycorrhizal fungus which develops a symbiotic relationship with plant roots and can help vines obtain nutrients – especially phosphorous, but others are under investigation – from parts of the soil that the roots otherwise wouldn’t be able to access).  We agreed that there are a lot of ‘conclusions’ out there that are just based on associations, but that there is great value in doing the work to demonstrate a cause and effect relationship, if one exists.  This is a huge issue in the world of terroir, as there are so many ideas derived from centuries of tradition that it can be difficult to tease them apart and determine those that actually have logical bases.  But Tim told me that he feels the best wine comes from people who are actually out in their vineyards watching what is happening all of the time.  He really stressed this, and to me, it is an interesting embodiment of art and science in wine.  Because really what this is all about is keen observation – and that is a trait that is often attributed to both scientists and to artists.  For both, the closer they keep an eye on the world around them, the better they can do their job – for the scientist, it’s a way of finding answers, and for the artist, a way of finding inspiration.  And if you’re making wine, both rational answers and creative inspiration are of the utmost importance.

(Woolaston Estates Vineyards)

While in the Nelson area I also met Cam Trott, Cellar Hand at Woolaston Estates, a gorgeous gravity-flow winery that was built with Pinot Noir in mind (Woolaston’s owners brought in Larry Ferar, a winery architect from Oregon to design the building).  The idea behind gravity-flow is that each step of the winemaking process occurs at a level lower than the previous so that musts and wines can be transferred using the power of gravity rather than pumps, which can be damaging to the wine, particularly when dealing with grapes as delicate as Pinot Noir.

(Top floor of Woolaston’s gravity-flow winery)

Cam and I talked about a lot of things (particularly about minerality, as that is kind of my pet project at the moment, and what I’ve been spending a whole lot of time thinking about with Chris Oze at University of Canterbury), but he was particularly excited to talk about biodynamics, as he had just spent a week doing some work at Seresin in Marlborough.  Though they’re not biodynamic at Woolaston (they are fully organic though – and Neudorf is moving in that direction), Cam appreciates the biodynamic treatment of the vineyard as a self-contained, self-sufficient entity – really, as its own organism (though in regards to the cosmic aspects of biodynamics he said “I’m not quite there yet” – a perspective that reflects many I’ve heard, even from fairly strong supporters of the methodology).  The key here, for Cam, is working with the land and harnessing all it can do for the vines.  He said that there are people who work with the land because they believe in it, and people who just use ‘sustainable,’ ‘organic,’ ‘biodynamic’ etc. because they see it as a good marketing tool, and that the latter are the ones who run into trouble.  And though I’d be the first to admit that there’s plenty to debate about whether or not you can taste the minerals in the soil, I must say that I’m pretty convinced you can taste passion in a wine.  And it’s delicious.

Minerality in wines… what is it?

Though I’ve talked a lot about science and art coexisting quite harmoniously in the wine world, I knew this wouldn’t be the case in every scenario.  And indeed, I have found an issue where science and nonscience butt heads.  This just happens to be the issue I have set out to study with Dr. Chris Oze at the University of Canterbury.  Dr. Oze is interested in the concept of ‘minerality’ in wine.  Geologic references, including minerality and others such as ‘slate,’ ‘quartz,’ and ‘wet stones’ are pervasive in tasting notes (including my own), but while many wine aromas and flavors can be traced to specific compounds in the wines, the story is not so simple with minerality.  The scientific community remains largely unconvinced that it is possible to taste the soils in any direct way, as they (rightly) point out that whole minerals cannot be taken up by the roots and end up in the grapes, and then somehow manage to stick around during months or even years of processing and maturation until they reach your glass.  Metal ions are surely taken up from the soil, but the mechanisms for this aren’t well understood and contributions of metals from exogenous sources, such as pesticides, metal tanks, and bentonite clays used for fining, complicate source allocation.

So it seems like the science here is at odds with what many people commonly believe about the taste of their wine (remember the importance of the soil to winemakers in Priorat??), and the importance of vineyard geology and soil composition on the quasi-mystical concept of ‘terroir.’  But then, after reading upwards of 50 scientific articles on the subject, it has started to seem like maybe the problem is that no one actually knows either way.  My latest conclusion is that there simply hasn’t been enough work done on this issue to know whether or not you really can taste some version, albeit highly modified and likely indirect, of the soil in your glass.  Amazing how scientists are so good at using a lack of conclusive evidence to support arguments on both sides (though in defense of all the scientists who have looked at this issue, it is ridiculously complex and very possible that we may just not be able to get a conclusive answer because controlling the variables enough to produce a valid study may render the results completely inapplicable to real winemaking – but there are always different ways of thinking about problems, so perhaps all we need is a novel approach…)!  So it is not necessarily that science and winemaking/tasting lore are at odds here, but we just don’t yet know enough to say.