Autour de la vigne : Insight into the public perception of wine science

A recent piece on Radio France International (RFI), the French international public radio, reveals some of the current wine research questions being investigated at INRA, the French National Institute for Agricultural Research.  But more importantly, the format of the interview gives us some insight into what aspects of wine science are intriguing to the public, thus pointing out some trails to follow to better communicate wine science with the non-wine industry public.

The context, of course, is a bit particular to France, as the French public has a special relationship with wine that is unlike that of many other countries.  French culture is historically and traditionally tied up in the production and consumption of wine, so it is naturally a subject with importance to the public. The wine industry carries huge economic weight in France, being the second most important export industry after aviation.  Production is widespread and diverse, with a major impact in almost all regions of the country.  And the concept of terroir is one that is well-integrated into society, commonly referred to, if not always completely understood in its technical sense, as it is a concept that is used not only in wine, but also in discussing other food products with a fundamental tie to their birthplace.

This context must be kept in mind, but does not mean that the issues addressed in the piece are not pertinent to the public in other countries.  France is an example of a nation that takes wine very seriously, but this trend is being picked up in other regions with growing production and consumption of wine.  Thus the presence of wine science in French public media can be a model for other cultures, of ways in which we can approach scientific questions of pertinence to wine, giving us an indication of the elements of wine most intriguing to an inquisitive public thirsty for understanding and for wine.

The panel interviewed on Autour de la question included researchers from INRA in Montpellier and Colmar.  Véronique Cheynier, the research director at Monpellier whose research is focused on polyphenols, Jean-Luc Legras who studies the role of yeasts in winemaking, and Philippe Hugueney, research director at Colmar who studies primary aromas produced in different grape varieties.

The host, Caroline Lachowsky, launched the conversation with a question that I know well.  A question that intrigues me to no end and thus delighted me to hear on this show, confirming its relevance and interest : is winemaking a science or an art, or some combination of the two ?

The response picked up on a classically French element of this discussion : terroir.  Dr. Legras took the idea that a wine is an infusion of vineyard stones and defended it, at least for certain varieties, in proposing as an example the wines of Alsace, which can have entirely different profiles, even coming from a single producer who treats all of his wines equally, the only difference being the vineyard site.  What doesn’t come up until later is that this idea of minerality, of typicity of place, has not yet been linked directly to the soil.  But here he plays on the fascination aspect, the magic that is what intrigues the public about wine.  He openly admits that these differences in terroir are perceptible, but doesn’t expand on the science (or lack thereof) behind it at this point.  The panelists wait until the question is posed a bit differently, in terms of how the specificity of a soil might be injected into the wines, to clarify the state of the science on this matter.  Here Philippe Hugueney discusses the known direct influences of soil on grape quality – that soil nitrogen content impacts grape color, but that the roles of the minerals in the soil remain mysterious.  He explains that the popular term minerality has no agreed-upon definition and how this characteristic might come from the soil is still unknown (here I would add that we don’t even know whether this is the right question to be asking – there is much debate as to whether minerals in the soil even have an influence on this ‘mineral’ character, and thus we are not even yet at the point of working out how, but still at the level of if they have an impact).

Typical terroir of France's AOC Côte-Rôtie, in the northern Rhône valley

How is it, then that such an intriguing question, one of the first to be posed in this interview, in an accurate reflection of its frequency amongst wine lovers, remains unanswered?

Lachowsky later asks what types of evolution wine and wine styles have undergone over the years – if the identity of wine is changing, becoming sweeter, more or less acidic, or higher in alcohol.  Dr. Cheynier jumps to respond that the wines are certainly higher in alcohol, due to faster maturity and higher sugar levels, which are then converted through fermentation into elevated alcohol levels in the final wines.  She attributes this major shift to climate change, another hot topic in wine science as well as in the public eye.  Though a hugely important element to explore, here I think that the conversation was left isolated a bit too far into the scientific realm, as there are a host of other factors influencing the evolution of what we consider to be quality wine, or wine that consumers are interested in purchasing.  There is an element of taste, of fashion, here, that, while perhaps more fickle and trivial than climate change, is important to consider, especially when communicating with the public.   This is yet another aspect of the complexity of wine, and the complexity of understanding climate change, as we often cannot differentiate cause and effect in the race toward bigger, bolder, more powerful wines that has been occurring over the past 20-30 years.

Here is a potential disconnect between how researchers see the world – focusing on climate change as the primary factor influencing the evolution of wine styles, while consumers might be more interested to hear about the interaction between climate change and changing tastes with the introduction of new producer countries, the expansion of consumption in nations where wine-drinking was not traditionally part of the culture, et cetera.

The host was quick to pick up on the great complexity of wine science – of the distinct parts that must work together – plant physiology to understand the compounds present in the grapes, microbiology of the yeasts that produce the fermentation, and how these two interact to create the complex chemistry of finished wine.  And furthermore, the complexity of all of the environmental factors that go into making a wine – the elements of terroir : soil, climate, geography, and viticultral and winemaking techniques, the influence of pests, diseases, beneficial insects, yeasts, bacteria and other organisms that play a role in determining the final product.

This complexity, at every level, at every turn, is where we should really focus in communicating wine science.  This is what makes the system endlessly interesting, but also endlessly difficult to study.  But this is where the magic is.  And it is precisely this magic, this wonder, that is what attracts people to wine.  So to incite and interest in science in those already intrigued by wine, we can use this ‘magic’,  this complexity, to unite the two and spark passion for a new level of understanding in those who are enthralled by this fascinating beverage.

You can listen to or download the radio show (in two parts), Autour de la question (French) at the following links :

Part 1: http://www.rfi.fr/emission/20131218-1-pourquoi-le-vin-soif-recherche

Part 2 : http://www.rfi.fr/emission/20131218-2-pourquoi-le-vin-soif-recherche

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DWCC 2013 Highlights

After my incredible opportunity to attend the 2013 Digital Wine Communications Conference (DWCC) in Logroño, Rioja, Spain, I had too many great exchanges and experiences to capture them all. I’m still catching my breath a bit from a whirlwind October filled with DWCC, visits to wineries all over the west of Spain, a trip to Dijon to settle up my internship plans, a half-marathon,and some personal excitement of family and loved ones visiting, but in the meantime, here are some photo highlights of the DWCC, for a glimpse into the life of a wine blogger :

The first event was hosted by Dinastia Vivanco, who invited us to the winery for a tour, lunch, and visit to their incredible museum, which houses artifacts collected by Pedro Vivanco Paracuello.  I was impressed by the variety of artifacts and the quality of the displays and curation- would have loved to have a bit more time to explore, but this was the beginning of a rapid-fire weekend! And I can’t complain too much, as although the visit was quick, it also included tastings of their wines in each of the 5 sections of the museum (each devoted to a distinct aspect of wine and culture – from its origins to artifacts related to opening, serving and drinking the final product).

View of the village of Briones from Dinastia Vivanco vineyardsView of the village of Briones from the vineyards of Dinastia Vivanco

Densitometers_Dinastia_Vivanco_MuseumDensitometers in Dinastia Vivanco Museum

ancient_amphore_dinastia_vivancoOne of the oldest pieces in the Dinastia Vivanco Museum

Back at the Rioja Forum in Logroño, the fabulous venue for the conference, we rarely saw a moment with our glasses half empty.  The tastings that were organized were impressive and varied, and a great opportunity to quickly get a taste of the wines from Rioja, Iberia, and beyond.

aged_riojas_DWCC13Aged Riojas tasting, including Riojas of the ‘old’ and ‘new’ styles dating from 1970-2001.

1959_Vina_Soledad_DWCC13The surprise finish to the Riojas tasting – a 1959 Viña Soledad Rioja white – a spectacular discovery (that was apparently served to President Eisenhower on a visit to Rioja)! Maintains great mouthfeel – round but wide awake, with slight nuttiness of aged wine on finish.


IMG_0623 Ancient Colheitas tasting – my favorite tasting of the conference – Colehita Ports from Kopke from 1983, 1974, 1966, 1957 and the 1940 special edition. 

2013-10-25 13.49.30-1More port. Couldn’t get enough.

Kopke_1940_colheita_special_editionPackaging of the 1940 special edition. Amazing. The others were also great but this was perfectly balanced, with a bit of peaty spiciness, caramel-drizzled pineapple. I wrote in my tasting notes “When I drink these wines I feel like I am drinking history.”


vermouth_mixingA mix-your-own Vermouth tasting.  Very interesting insight into a beverage I knew almost nothing about. And we got to keep the ingredients (base wine – sweet fortified Muscat, and aromas – bitter orange, sweet orange, chinchona bark, gentian, and cinnamon) 

IMG_0629Grand tasting of native Iberian varieties led by two of the three authors of Wine Grapes (winegrapes.org) Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz (Jancis Robinson was not present in person, though did make a video appearance to announce the location of next year’s conference – in Montreux, Switzerland!)

Not all of the sessions involved tastings however.  Some were even a bit tense, such as the keynote session that paired up scientifically-minded entrepreneur Clark Smith (most recently talked about for his book Postmodern Winemaking – postmodernwinemaking.com but also for his wine-score prediction company Enologix – enologix.com ) and  Finnish wine personality Arto Koskelo ( koskeloonwine.com ) in what was meant to be a bit of a head-to-head.  I am saving my commentary on the matter for a separate post.  Expect it soon.

Sunday was filled with visits to various wineries.  My tour went to Bodegas Bilbainas (bodegasbilbainas.com) and Bodegas Palacio (bodegaspalacio.com).

bodegas_bilbainasBodegas Bilbainas Winery

cobwebs_bilbainas ancient_vat_bilbainasImages from the ancient cellar at Bodegas Bilbainas

Bodegas_Palacio_murals Palacio_mural_tank_doorOld Cement tanks painted with murals at Bodegas Palacio

ancient_cellar_palacioAncient cellar at Bodegas Palacio

Cosme_Palacio_verticalVertical tasting of signature wine Cosme Palacio (one of first to be produced in “New Rioja” style with the 1986 vintage – with council from Michel Rolland at the beginning – using new French oak barrels, long macerations to assure full extraction of color) with winemaker and marketing manager. We tasted the 1995, 2000, 2005, and 2010 vintages.

Glorioso_Gran_Reserva_1978_Bodegas_PalacioLunch was served with Palacio’s other wines, including their entry-level Milleflores (carbonic maceration), a wonderful white called Cosme Palacio 1894 made from barrel-fermented Viura (the Rioja name for what is called Macabeo elsewhere in Spain) and Malvasia, the Glorioso Reserva 2008, and this, the Glorioso Reserva 1978, still potent with alcohol, spices, and red fruits. 1978 was one of the exceptional vintages of the 1970s, and happens to be the current winemaker’s birth year as well. 

To finish, some glorious views from the town of Laguardia :

LaguardiaRioja1

Laguardia_Rioja2

Laguardia_Rioja3

Laguardia_Rioja4

Rioja, Here I Come!!

Newsflash!!! Just found out that I’ve been awarded the EWBC Scholarship to attend the European Wine Bloggers Convention/Digital Wine Communications Conference on **flavour**in Rioja, Spain at the end of October!!!! So honored to have this opportunity to meet some of the greatest minds in wine communication, exchange ideas, and of course soak in the views and wines of this amazing region!  Thanks to everyone involved and HELLO! to all the new friends and colleagues that I’ll be meeting very soon!

http://ewbcscholarship.com/girls-girls-girls/

dwcc.co

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