Wine science takes on the Chesapeake

I have just landed on home soil. Coming back to my roots, my terroir, to deepen and round out the research project I’m working on at the University of Burgundy.  I have come to spend two weeks at the University of Maryland’s Chesapeake Biological Laboratory, with our collaborator Michael Gonsior.

2014-05-07 10.12.42

They grow wine in the Chesapeake?  Actually its possible… I’ll have to find out (in any case this weekend I’ll be spending some time in another surprising wine region, at Galer Estate in western Pennsylvania).  But that’s not the reason I’m here.  I am here to work with environmental chemists, to learn their methods, typically applied to marine water or other environmental samples, and apply them to wine.  This collaboration started a couple of years ago, Gonsior and my mentor, Régis Gougeon having been introduced by another non-wine collaborator, Phillipe Schmitt-Kopplin (whose lab in Munich I spent three weeks in back in March), and the research looks quite promising.

In brief we are using fluorescence spectroscopy methods to study the global signatures of different wines.  This has been done before (see Airado-Rodrígeuz et al., 2011), but we hope to combine the information gleaned from the “fluo”, as it is affectionately called (at least in French) with our already well-developed metabolomics approach (see Gougeon et al., 2009; Liger-Belair et al., 2009; Roullier-Gall et al., 2014) to gain a more well-rounded view of a wine and the effects of different factors, such as terroir and bottle age (Roullier-Gall et al., 2014), cooperage (Gougeon et al., 2009), or vinification choices. Early results were presented at WAC by Christian Coelho and Chloé Roullier-Gall.


Personally, this experience brings me full circle, in a way, as a major part of my chemistry training took place in an environmental context (my senior thesis, at Haverford College, was carried out in Biogeochemist Helen White’s lab), and I am looking forward to seeing how my project and intentions are received in such an environment, seeing that I work on a very different substrate, with very different stakes and objectives.  This was less of a factor in Munich, as the collaboration is a long-standing one, and several PhD students have already passed through their lab, desensitizing them to what might otherwise seem a strange topic in the context of the “Environmental Health” focus of that particular institute.


Additionally, this puts the study of wine in a new context for me, one that is less bathed in wine than the French context I have been working in. Though in Munich wine is not the beverage of choice either, the lab’s PI (Schmitt-Kopplin) is French, and has a vested personal interested in wine.  In the US, particularly outside of the more longstanding winemaking regions, wine is often viewed quite differently from in the Old World, particularly France, as America does not have the longstanding, deep-rooted history into which the vines and wine issue from them, spread their roots.  I’m looking forward to seeing (and sharing!) how this all plays out during my stay.



Airado-Rodrígeuz, D., Durán-Merás, I., Galeano-Díaz, T., Wold, J. P. Front-face fluorescence spectroscopy: A new tool for control in the wine industry. J. Food Comp. Anal. 2011, 24, 257-264.

Gougeon, R. D.; Lucio, M.; Frommberger, M.; Peyron, D.; Chassagne, D.; Alexandre, H.; Feuillat, F.; Voilley, A.; Cayot, P.; Gebefügi, I.; Hertkorn, N.; Schmitt-Kopplin, P. The chemodiversity of wines can reveal a metabologeography expression of cooperage oak wood. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 2009, 106, 9174-9179

Liger-Belair, G.; Cilindre, C.; Gougeon, R.; Lucio, M.; Gebefügi, I.; Jeandet, P.; Schmitt-Kopplin, P. Unraveling different chemical fingerprints between a champagne wine and its aerosols. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 2009, 106, 16545-16549.

Roullier-Gall, C.; Boutegrabet, L.; Gougeon, R. D.; Schmitt-Kopplin, P. A grape and wine chemodiversity comparison of different appellations in Burgundy : Vintage vs. terroir effects. Food Chem. 2014, 152,100-107.

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.

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.

Kiwi Wine Science

I have spent the past couple of weeks doing some work at Lincoln University‘s Centre for Viticulture and Oenology (CV&O).  My role there has been to update their website, including setting up a blog and writing a bunch of news stories that will be posted over the next several months.  This has been a great opportunity to meet with faculty and students involved with the Centre – a very diverse bunch that includes experts in chemistry, molecular biology, viticulture, plant pathology, soil science, ecology, marketing, and tourism.

 (Ivey Hall – the Lincoln University library)

This opportunity has allowed me to get a taste of the caliber and variety of research that goes on at the CV&O, which, while small, is very highly regarded in the wine world.  Researchers at the Centre work with collaborators from across New Zealand (in academia, industry, and the government) and from around the world.  The University also draws students from far and wide – I share an office with grad students from China, Chile, and the US, and an intern from France.

I have learned about research into the wine consumption habits of Generation Y (in fact, if you were born after 1977 and are of legal drinking age in your home country, you can be a part of the latest study on this subject by completing the brief, confidential survey found here), the impact of installing biodiversity trails on the wine tourism experience, the use of crushed glass (from used wine bottles, of course!) as a reflective mulch spread in vineyards to improve grape quality, the effect of UV radiation on grapevines and the wine produced from them, the characterization of New Zealand Pinot Noir regions by sensory and chemical analysis of the wines, and much, much more.

In my role as website updater/reporter/blogger I have also learned a lot about how the Centre wants to present itself, and to whom.  In addition to attracting graduate students, as is the goal of any good research institution, the CV&O is particularly interested in sharing its findings with the wine industry.  Many projects are financed with industry support, and most are of direct consequence to the industry.  Findings are sometimes published as reports for New Zealand Winegrowers, and research projects seem to reflect the challenges and needs of wine producers in New Zealand.  Thus the V&O research at Lincoln is very much on the “applied” end of the research spectrum, and I would be interested to know if there are many wine scientists out there doing what would be considered “basic” research.  My suspicion is that most wine science would fall on the “applied” side, for the fairly obvious reason that it is tied very closely to an economically important industry, but also, and more interestingly, for the more nuanced reason that wine science is embedded in wine making – 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, and thus carries some inherent tension with the tenets* of basic science, which, at least on the surface, suggest that logic alone should allow us to “solve” the problems of winemaking.  But, of course, it can never be as simple as this, and this, I believe, is why wine science looks a little bit different, a little more applied, than some other disciplines.

(*tenet is a strong word used here for effect – I don’t actually intend to suggest that ‘science’ is a well-defined or rigid category, but that’s for another post. or maybe a whole book…)

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 growrs 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.”

So, apparently, science and art can coexist, and the industry is dependent upon such coexistence.  It just might mean that the science and art don’t look quite like they do in other contexts.


Vitec is Catalonia’s wine science and technology institute, affiliated with the university in Tarragona.  Vitec’s director, Sergi De Lamo Castellví, was kind enough to show me around their facility in Falset, a beautiful new building with viticultural, oenological, and sensory laboratory spaces.

Their sensory laboratory consists of cubicles equipped with an “enoscope”, which is essentially a light box that emits the “perfect” white light to analyze color and transparency of the wine.  All experiments are tasted in this facility, and Vitec is working to attain EU accreditation to train professional wine tasters.  The official tasting glasses for Spain and France are small wine glasses (and black glasses are used when the influence of wine color is to be eliminated), but Vitec prefers to use the Riedel Syrah glasses as these give far better expression of aromas.

In the wine and must analysis lab, Vitec performs many different types of experiments, as their funding comes from many different sources – keeping their work quite varied.  Some of the things they are looking at include acids and amino acids as aroma precursors, the characterization of polyphenols in must and wines, as well as in the seeds and whole grapes, the use of infrared (IR) spectroscopic analysis to differentiate individual strains of yeast and bacteria in must, and the analysis of the contribution of cork materials to desirable aromas in wine.

Their gas chromatograph-mass spectrometer (GC-MS) was equipped with two special attachments – a “sniffer” to run samples of volatile aroma compounds, and a “Twister” which uses a miniature stir bar to create a tiny vortex inside the sample tube, allowing for the analysis of very low concentrations of compounds in aqueous solutions (i.e. wine!).

They also have a viticultural lab, although Sergi described it as more of a storage space as all of the viticultural experiments take place in the vineyards.  Some things that they are looking into here are hydric management and “precision viticulture,” which involves analyzing small subsections of the vineyard in order to cultivate them in such a way that the overall crop yield is uniform.  The research at Vitec is integrated in such a way that all of the experiments in the field are carried through to final wines for sensory analysis (tasting).  This means that they must carry out a large number of microvinifications, preparing 30-50 liter batches of wine.  The problem with this method is that the smaller the batch size, the less realistic the vinification conditions.  Vitec has developed several methods to circumvent this problem.  They have a press that is specially designed for small batches – allowing 30-300 kg (66-660 lb) of grapes to be pressed at a time in conditions that mimic those encountered in the winery.  They also have found that fermenting their wines in 30 liter  beer kegs allows them to prevent oxidation of the wines, because they can top of the kegs with carbon dioxide after filling them.  (Notice in the photo of the beer kegs that there are some pink bottles sitting on the floor?  The wine in these bottles was an experiment where grapes were harvested from vines grown in pots!)

Vitec has also come up with an innovative solution to the problem of controlling the temperature of so many tiny fermentation tanks.  Buying microvinification tanks with built in temperature control systems would run them about €1500 (as opposed to about €50 for the regular tanks), and they can be working with up to 80 microvinifications at a time.  They have devised a system where they insert a heat exchanger in the bottom of a large water tank, which they can then set to the desired temperature (with a fish tank pump to keep the water circulating) and control the environment of several tanks simultaneously.

Vitec has the only instrument in Spain which is capable of comparing the oxygen environment of inside and outside of a cork (or any other type of closure).  In this way, they can measure the amount of oxygen that enters the bottle per day, and find that some corks can allow up to 20 times more oxygen to pass through than others!  They can use this information to determine the most appropriate type of closure for a particular type of wines, as, for example, relatively “closed” red wines can benefit from a bit of oxygenation, whereas a young white or rose can become oxidized quite easily with the wrong cork, turning essentially into sherry!

The breadth of research at Vitec is astounding, and they seem to have a well integrated program.  It is the institute specifically focused on wine in Spain, as other wine research is conducted at centers that study food science as well.  Locating the center in the Priorat was an important political gain for the region as well, as it brings this resource of technological innovation directly to the area.

Also:  Important information about traveling with wine!!!