My Return to the Ivory Tower

The last several months have been bursting with emotion.  Frustration, anxiety, self-reflection, relief, elation.  It is true what they say, that human beings have a difficult time with change, but also that it is essential, clearing the old dusty parts of us to make way for the succulent new growth (perhaps it is no coincidence that this process has occurred in sync with the emergence and growth of the vine itself).

DSC_0145The magnificent Dentelles de Montmirail in the southern Rhône valley

I left my full-time winery job back around the holidays, needing to redistribute my time and energy in order to find a job more along the lines of what I really wanted to do long-term.  But I quickly realized that I had absolutely no idea what that was.  I applied for jobs a bit half-heartedly, but between my own disenchantment and the lamentable state of the French job market, the search bore little fruit.  I also began applying for PhD positions in anything remotely related to environmental chemistry, but when it came down to it, the opportunities that I was offered just didn’t feel right and I couldn’t bring myself to commit to such an intense journey without being 100% on board.

Around the time I was starting to feel the effects of this visceral anxiety of being unable to discern the desires of my own soul – a form of identity crisis in our society with its hyperfocalization on what one does in life, I stumbled upon the University of Cambridge’s History and Philosophy of Science department.  I had already thought about trying to pursue some kind of science studies or history of science route in France, but I couldn’t find the information I wanted and found my research thwarted by a collection of unanswered emails, so I’d let the idea slip aside.  It had never occurred to me to look in the UK as I hadn’t been ready to expand my search beyond France, but now that the months remaining on my visa were ticking conspicuously away, England suddenly felt much closer.

Applications were still open for the 1-year MPhil program, which was recommended to me by a couple of professors in the department, to get a taste for the department and give me the time to prepare a PhD proposal.  I applied and was accepted only a few weeks later.  I had simultaneously received another opportunity that, on paper, seemed perfect for me (a PhD in geochemistry looking at the interaction between soil and microbes in vineyards), but there was really only one of these choices that felt right in my heart.  Questions raised by the history of science and science studies have truly guided all that I’ve done in the past three years, and have informed all of the big questions that have captivated me throughout all of my wine related adventures.  Going to Cambridge for this MPhil, and writing a PhD proposal to study the history of biodynamic agriculture, a topic that has fascinated me endlessly, is a path forward that allows me to maintain my links to science, to agriculture, to nature and to the wine industry.

After college, I seized the opportunity to leave the academic world because I felt the need to know what other paths existed.  I wanted to experience the big questions instead of just thinking about them.  And for nearly four years I have lived incredible experiences, learned amazing lessons, and I am eternally grateful for each one of them.  But one of these lessons that I’ve learned is that I like the theorizing, the musing, the questioning, and I’m ready to hit the books.

A Baltic Love Story: The Intrigue of 170-year-old Shipwrecked Champagne

The internet is bursting with news of champagne: the BBC1, Fox2, NBC3, Discovery News4, Science5, Nature6, Popular Science7, Smithsonian Magazine8 (who published the most complete summary I’ve seen), and many more are all bubbling with excitement over the discovery of 170-year-old champagne bottles shipwrecked in the Baltic Sea.  Granted, the discovery itself dates back to 2010, but has been brought to the attention of the masses as a result of an article published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA (PNAS)9. I had the pleasure to be a coauthor on this paper, and am thus that much more thrilled to see the media excitement surrounding its publication. But my attention is particularly piqued by the manner in which the science journalists and the twittersphere are talking about the article, as it gives a clear view of what the public finds most interesting about the discovery.  This public perception of science is always a topic of interest to me, but here I have the particular privilege of being an insider, and thus comparing the public reaction to that of the scientists who worked on the paper.

Such a discovery, of 168 bottles of label-less champagne bottles dating from the first half of the 19th century, is one that intrigues and excites.  The article begins in language uncharacteristically enthusiastic for a scientific article: “Discovering ancient objects from excavation sites or simply at the back of a cellar has always piqued human interest because of the messages from the past they may contain. Unsurprisingly, our interest increases even more when exhuming old bottles or even jars that seem to have contained grapes or wine, giving a glimpse into the little-known history of winemaking.” Clearly (and I can attest to this), the scientists were intrigued by this project for reasons that go beyond the scientific value of the study – here is a case where one of the fundamental motivations for a research project is simple curiosity and wonderment. This is, after all, one of the most essential wonders of wine itself – its ability to transport us in time and place, whether that be to the year of its production, a memory of a candlelit evening where a particular wine was first tasted, or to the vineyard itself. So this study does lend itself particularly well to popular interest, and indeed, the public has weighed in, expressing their curiosity as to what such an old champagne, aged in such particular conditions must taste like.

The study includes, of course, a sensory analysis, and thus can answer this most pressing question that the media poses. At first whiff (known as the “first nose” in French, smelled before swirling the glass and thus oxygenating the wine), the expert sensory panel remarked odors resembling cheese, animal notes, and wet hair or fur, none of which are particularly surprising given the oxygen deprived environment that these champagnes were aged in (during normal storage, a small amount of oxygen, does diffuse through the cork over long periods of time, but underwater, it was, in fact, the carbon dioxide responsible for champagne’s signature bubbles that diffused out of the bottles, leaving behind a ‘flat’ champagne with only a bit of tingly, prickly sensation in the mouth). After swirling a bit to expose the wine to oxygen, the predominant aromas shifted to far more appetizing “grilled, spicy, smoky, and leathery” as well as the more expected floral and fruit notes. All of these sensory impressions were corroborated by the detection of corresponding aroma molecules using advanced chemical analysis methods.

Despite the inherent intrigue of the champagnes’ organoleptic profile, the paper’s discussion goes far beyond sensory analysis, delving into the domain of “archaeochemistry,” or the use of chemical evidence to unravel the archaeological mysteries of this shipwrecked champagne found in the Baltic Sea. Evidence such as the content of sugar, alcohol, metal ions, salts, and wood-derived compounds were all analyzed with an eye to reconstructing of the methods employed in making these wines, and these results even give insight into the viticultural practices and the probable intended destination of the bottles. This careful detective work is of great interest to the chemically-, enologically-, historically- or archaeologically-minded, but it appears that the question of these wines taste remains the issue that most profoundly captivates the public.

1 http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-32388123

2 http://www.foxnews.com/science/2015/04/22/170-year-old-champagne-recovered-from-bottom-sea/

3 http://www.nbcnews.com/science/weird-science/shipwrecks-170-year-old-veuve-clicquot-reveals-champagne-history-n345176

4 http://news.discovery.com/history/archaeology/shipwrecked-champagne-leathery-still-pretty-good-150420.htm

5 http://news.sciencemag.org/chemistry/2015/04/what-does-170-year-old-champagne-taste

6 http://www.nature.com/news/cheesy-metallic-sweet-170-year-old-champagne-is-clue-to-winemaking-s-past-1.17361

7 http://www.popsci.com/popping-cork-170-year-old-shipwrecked-champagne

8 http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/170-year-old-champagne-recovered-and-tasted-baltic-shipwreck-180955050/

9 A PDF of the original article is available here on the University of Reims’ website.

The Magic of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti

It was a lucky break. Thanks to their collaboration with the lab where I did my master’s thesis (see their most recent publication in PLOS One here) , I was recently invited to visit the world renowned Domaine de la Romanée-Conti (known in the industry as DRC) in Burgundy. This winery, famous for its eponymous Romanée-Conti wine, which comes from grapes grown in the small (1,8140 ha) vineyard (“climat”) of the same name in the village of Vosne-Romanée. This wine is one of the most cherished in the world, and comes with a pricetag that is accordingly extravagant (NPR ran a story just a couple of days ago about a book written about a 2010 plot to blackmail the winery).

DSC_0243

DRC courtyard in Vosne-Romanée with its vineyard backdrop.

The history of this famed winery began around the year 900 AD, with the founding of the priory of Saint-Vivant, which acquired the vineyards of Romanée-Conti in 1131. The monastery controlled the vines until 1584, when the land was purchased by Claude Cousin, the first in a long line of family-owners of this property (only 2 different families in 430 years), which continues today with Aubert de Villaine, and his nephew, Bertrand, our guide this morning, incredibly generous with both his knowledge and his wine.

bertrand_de_villaine

Bertrand de Villaine explains how the Corton is blended from three different parcels.

He led us into their recently expanded cellars, where he led us through a barrel tasting of the 2013 red wines from each of their 7 red appellations : Corton, Echézeaux, Grands-Echézeaux, Romanée-St-Vivant, Richebourg, La Tâche and Romanée-Conti. Each of them were phenomenal, still very young, of course (some just finishing or having just finished malolactic fermentation), but a wine cannot age well if it doesn’t begin with all of the fundamentals in place. This was a concept that I knew well, but did not understand on a visceral level until I tasted these wines. Each one different from the others, they were all unique and fabulous in their own way, each characterized by its particular magnificent balance. Bertrand explained that they assure this balance by waiting until the grapes are perfectly ripe before harvesting. Their neighbors might be out harvesting a few days, even a few weeks before this moment of perfection for fear of losing yield due to an upcoming rainstorm, for instance, but DRC will wait, no matter what. Of course with the prices of their wines, they are in a better position to take this risk than many producers, but it is a major risk none the less and results in a relatively high variability in the quantity of wine that they produce, but with an incredible consistency in the quality, which is, without fail, exceptional.

DSC_0238Barrel of 2013 Romanée-Conti 

Each of the 7 wines had its particular personality, all of them like someone you hit it off with right off the bat. But it is true that the Romanée-Conti is the one you fall in love with at first sight. Not in a stunningly-gorgeous-knock-your-socks-off-from-across-the-room kind of way (though maybe with a few years of maturity she becomes so), but in a far more subtle, delicate way. Such that your first sip seems so incredibly satisfying, but then trails off leaving hints of so much more to be discovered, and so you find yourself chasing her, praying, begging for her to reveal just a bit more. And she keeps tempting you in this way until your glass is empty, but you are not angry that she’s gone, but rather you have never felt more content in your life.

DSC_0250

Bottle storage of 2011 Romanée-Conti and La Tâche

In the bottle cellar we were introduced to another incredible beauty, this one a blond. Bertrand served us a 2007 Bâtard-Montrachet chardonnay, the only wine they make that is not sold (they do sell one white wine, a Montrachet), as they produce only 1-2 barrels (300-600 bottles) each year that are used exclusively for private tastings, special events, and the family’s personal consumption. It was glorious. I will not even attempt to describe this wine because words will not do it proper justice. I must simply counsel you to pray to someday have the chance to encounter such a bottle, as I have done thanks to the generosity and scientific curiosity of Aubert and Bertrand de Villaine.

DSC_0255

 

2007 Bâtard-Montrachet

I took 5 pages of notes during the visit, wanting to absorb everything that Bertrand told us, not miss a single detail. But I know, and I knew as I was doing so, that there is no secret recipe. I could tell you that they use 100% new, untoasted oak barrels. I could tell you that for the Romanée-Conti and a part of Richebourg and Montrachet they use a plow horse, named Mickey, to work in the vines. And that alternatively, they have a custom-built tractor that is the weight of a horse in order to avoid undo pressure on the soil and root systems. You could probably replicate their work exactly, but I fear that it would be in vain. There is something special, magical about this place. This is the indefinable in the world of wine. The sum that is greater than its parts*. There is an element here that no one can explain it, and I hope that no one tries. Sometimes we just need to let ourselves be captivated.

DSC_0223

Barrel cellar at DRC

*Yes, for the record, because I am sure that you are wondering, for me personally the prices paid for these bottles far exceed even the whole that exceeds the sum of the parts, but such is a luxury economy, and we must just be happy to embrace the rare opportunity to savor these wines in another context that does not involve thousands and thousands of dollars of expense, as I was so lucky to do here.