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.

An Urban Approach to Terroir

DSC_0652

Château Haut-Brion, unique amongst the Bordeaux giants categorized as Premier Grand Cru Classé for its proximity to the city, has built its centuries old tradition around its urbanity.  Located smack in the middle of the commune of Talence, effectively a suburb of Bordeaux, the vineyards of Château Haut-Brion (and its second label Château le Mission Haut-Brion) cover around 50 hectares of land.

DSC_0647

As a consequence of its urban location, the possibilities for expansion are extremely limited, even nonexistent.  Historically, they managed to expand the vineyard through the acquisition of a neighboring estate.  They demolished the chateau, but given that the foundation had existed for centuries, the soil underneath was not desirable for planting a vineyard.  Instead, they dug up the foundation as well as a neighboring section of road (under which, apparently, the soil had been significantly less impacted), and they exchanged the soil from the two.  This type of modification must certainly have impacted the pedology of the site, as the replacement of a mansion’s foundation would alter the soil profile to a considerable depth.  Haut-Brion is, however, very conscious of their terroir, having carried out extensive pedological studies to classify the different soils present on the property.  Their goals in doing so, however, we much more in line with what is a stereotypically “new world” vision of terroir than that of many French vignerons who adopt a more “traditional” description.  Haut-Brion used the results of these studies to help decide which varietals, clones, and rootstocks to plant where, and they work each year to harvest accordingly, in ‘lots’ more or less homogenous in terms of soil type, varietal, rootstock, and vine age.  But the viticulturalist’s goal here is not to harvest lots with diffferent “goûts de terroir” {taste of place”}, which he asserts does not exist. Rather, he suggests, the terroir participates (in concert with the other elements such as the varietal and rootstock) to determine only the maturity of the grapes, and it is the differing degrees of maturity at harvest that ultimately distinguish the wines.  He maintains that at Haut-Brion they are unable to differentiate amongst their various terroirs if all of the grapes are harvested at the same level of maturity, and thus it is on the mastery of ripening that they focus their energy.

DSC_0662

Such an approach, cut-and-dried, “scientific” in nature, seems to reflect their urban identity.  But perhaps also a commitment to consistency in their wines, so highly valued in a product in this pricerange.  The vignerons who subscribe to the concept of “goût de terroir” are those who value a bit of surprise and mystery in their wines, something that is seen as risky rather than virtuous in a luxury wine.  But then again, there are always exceptions to such generalizations..

DSC_0667

Abbaye de Fontevraud

Here are some photos from a recent visit to the Abbaye de Fontevraud, originally constructed to be something of a utopian city (ruled by women, no less) by Robert d’Arbrissel.  Throughout the trajectory of its history, however, the micro-city took on a motley variety of identities, as the site of a royal tomb (housing the remains of Henry II, Richard the Lion Heart, and Eleanor of Aquitaine), monastic city, penitentiary (until 1985!), cultural center, and UNESCO world heritage site.

 

(the nearby Chateau de Montsoreau)

(champignonerie (mushroom-erie) built into the rocks of Montsoreau)

 

Château du Clos de Vougeot

While in Burgundy this past weekend, I had the opportunity to visit the Château du Clos de Vougeot, home of the Confrérie des Chevaliers du Tastevin.  Located between the villages of Vougeot and Nuits-St-Georges, both well known for their wines.

The chateau was built in the 12th century and used by the monks of the Abbey of Cîteaux.  The four enormous presses and wooden vats,  still present in the castle today, were used by the monks to produce wine from surrounding vineyards.

In 1941 the castle was sold to the Confrérie des Chevaliers du Tastevin for the symbolic price of 1 franc, on the condition that they would restore the property that had been badly damaged during World War II.  The Confrérie had been created in 1934 in an effort to revitalize the global market for Burgundian wines, which had been negatively impacted by the global economic crisis.

Today the 12,000 chevaliers worldwide continue to celebrate Burgundian wines and culture during many grand events or “chapitres” throughout the year, often featuring distinguished guests and always featuring the wines and cuisine of the region.

Views of the vineyards of Clos de Vougeot:

Valley of many cellars… both technological and traditional

In a fascinating visit to the Valpolicella region of Italy, home to Valpolicella and Amarone wines, organized by Bolla Winery, I learned about this history of the area, tasted a range of wines coming from here, and got into deep philosophical discussions about technology, marketing, New World versus Old World approaches, limitations, and freedoms, and much, much more with Elio Novello, technical director of the winery.  Valpolicella means ‘valley of many cellars,’ but the history of the region is full of more than just great wine.

(‘Map’ of my discussion with Mr. Novello)

  (Pergola trellis system typical of this region)

(Guyot trellis system, largely adopted in Valpolicello around 20 years ago and now believed to produce lower quality grapes than the pergola system)

At Bolla, the emphasis is on the use of technology, but not at the expense of the natural.  The winery has a huge production, between 12 and 20 million bottles annually, so technology is applied intelligently as a means of reducing labor needs, and potential risk involved in human labor, to produce wine in the same way that it would be traditionally made.  For example, the winery employs a cross flow filtration system, which is a large, high-tech, expensive machine, but in fact uses no filtration material, instead relying on the natural sediments in the wine to, essentially, filter itself.  Another example is the use of an innovative method for pumping over, where they have specially designed tanks that use the pressure of the carbon dioxide naturally produced through fermentation to push down the cap of skins inside of the tank, submerging it in the fermenting must in order to extract compounds from the skins exactly as in a traditional pumpover, but without the need for pumps!

(Bottling lines at Bolla fill an entire room and pump out tens of thousands of bottles per day)

(Cross-flow filtration system – left – and electrodialysis machine for tartaric stabilization – right.  Both are fully controlled by a computer to reduce potential for human error)

I tasted their Soave Classico, a smooth, simple, highly drinkable white wine made from garganega and trebbiano (distinct from the Tuscan trebbiano) grapes, from the appropriately named town of Soave (though the name comes from Swedish heritage in the town, not the Italian word for smooth/sweet/gentle/soft, which actually is quite fitting for this particular wine).  I also tried four red wines all comprised of essentially the same grape varietals – corvina and corvenone with some other local varietals in the mix), but completely distinct as a result of terroir and/or production method.  The first was the Bardolino, a very simple, drinkable, low tannin, fresh red wine.  Then there was the Valpolicella, very different in style but only because of the different growing zone.  This wine had a bit more structure and body, owing to a bit of oak but also differences in terroir, and can hold up to a bit more aging than the Bardolino.  Next was the Ripasso, a particular style of wine made by refermenting normal valpolicella wine on the skins of Amarone wine.  This approach gives the wine a significant degree of complexity and body, though this particular specimine could use a few more months to integrate in the bottle, as the beautiful nose was not quite matched in the mouth.  Finally was the Amarone, a particular wine made after harvesting and drying the grapes in special conditions that allow for the development of botrytis inside (but not outside!!) the berries, dehydrating and changing their composition to the perfect degree, over a period of 1-3 months (but could be up to as many as 6!) before they are put into the tank for fermentation.  This yields a particular, complex, rich wine that is very special in this region.

(Bins for drying Amarone in a special warehouse on top of the hill where there is no fog and a consistent breeze, all prepped and waiting for harvest to begin)

(Dehydrated grapes as are used for Amarone production)

This type of winemaking approach, waiting at the whims of nature of the dehydration of grapes, may seem a stark contrast to the technologically advanced Bolla winery, but in fact lies at the heart of their philosophy, it seems.  The company is committed both to research and technology, but also, first and foremost, to creating a quality product for the consumer.  Something that can stand the test of time, not conforming to one fad or another, but rather a simple, straightforward, people-friendly wine that is, most importantly, enjoyable to consume.

(Wooden cask from 1884, the year after the winery was founded.  These casks =, in a nod to tradition, are still used today as the inside can be shaved every few years to expose fresh oak)

(Ancient Roman Monastery – one of the many relics of a rich, varied history in Valpolicella)

 

** Here’s a NYTimes article published today (Aug 17) about Soave, the white wine from the Valpolicella region 

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.

 

A La Mer!

After the end of harvest, I was invited to spend a few days in Brittany (Bretagne in French).  It was truly a vacation from what I’ve been doing, as no wine is made in Brittany (okay, not entirely true – very, very little wine is made there, and no wine that is made there can be sold, as there are no wine appellations in the region).  Instead, regional specialties include lots of seafood, cakes and biscuits (made with as much butter as possible – as Yves said, it wouldn’t be possible to put in more butter), crêpes and gallettes (crêpes made with buckwheat flour and usually have savory fillings, particularly eggs, cheese, and ham), and cider.  There is also a lot of history in the region, which was occupied by the Germans during WWII, and thus retains many souvenirs in the form of forts and other fortifications.  One such structure is the Keroman Submarine Base in Lorient, essentially the only structure to survive when the city was completely destroyed by the Americans in order to liberate France from Nazi control.

I stayed with Yves and Monique, Marine Dubard’s parents (I wasn’t quite ready to leave the family entirely when I left the vineyards last week…) in their home on le Cabellou, a “presque-ile” (“almost-island” or peninsula) just south of the town of Concarneau.  Le Cabellou is a gorgeous little area, and I will soon be posting a little blurb (in English) on the website that Yves has developed for le Cabellou.

One of the many, many things my wonderful hosts took me to was the annual Fête du Cidre, where they had demonstrations of how cider is made, cider tasting, a display of the variety of apples one can find in Brittany, crêpes, and roasted châtaignes (chestnuts).