Châteauneuf-du-Pape and environs

Enjoy these photos from a recent visit to the south of France: the southern Rhône, Avignon and some of the gorgeous hill towns of Provence.

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The Papal Palace in Avignon

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View from Les Baux-de-Provence

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The Vineyards and Scenery as seen from the village of Châteauneuf-du-Pape

 

 

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The eponymous Châteauneuf… du-Pape.

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Châteuneuf-du-Pape vineyards, with the characteristic river stones, known as “galets”.

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The Ancient Theater of Orange, still used for shows today.

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Gordes

Scottish treasure in Burgundy : A tale of whisky, terroir, and biofilms

A secret treasure lies beneath the little house off the main road in a tiny village in Burgundy. A treasure one wouldn’t expect to find in this region monopolized by the grape vine.  A pot of thousands upon thousands of liters of liquid gold.

IMG_0782 Cellars at Michel Couvreur Whisky

Appropriately located, the cellars of Michel Couvreur Scotch Whiskies, a minuscule operation led by a team of 3 dedicated employees, are found in Bouze-les-Beaune. The village is named for the nearby river Bouzaise, named for the Celtic word “bosa”, meaning pocket of water, which later evolved into “bouse” in medieval English, and then the contemporary equivalent, “Booze.”  But despite this nominal link to spirits, one would never know what lies in the cellars of the unmarked house.

 The cellars, dug out by Michel Couvreur himself to a depth of 15 meters, are a fantasyland evoking an underground scene in The Lord of the Rings.  The trickling sound of an underground source fills the damp air and the walls are covered in a wet, slimy substance.  A biofilm of microorganisms that seem to thrive in the humid atmosphere, sipping in the alcohol vapors as they grow.

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This, according to Blend master Jean-Arnaud Frantzen, is the terroir of the locale of “Finishing,” or the aging of whiskies in 500 L wooden casks. Whether this represents a “true” terroir is of course debatable, but it is clear that the aging environment has an impact.  The level of humidity will dictate, by the law of partial pressures, the alcoholic composition of the angel’s share (the portion of a cask’s contents that evaporates over time) and thus of the final alcoholic composition of the whisky remaining in the barrel.  But might the environment have even more of an influence than this? Perhaps an influence from the biofilms, which, like the black fungus characterizing the walls of buildings in the region of Cognac, Baudoinia compniacensis (aka Torula compniacensis) flourish in the presence of alcohol vapors?  Or the depth below the surface?  We all felt a slowing of our own internal rhythms upon descending into this cool, dark space, pressurized place, why couldn’t this have an effect on the whiskies as well?

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Biofilms on the cellar walls at Michel Couvreur

But this terroir of “élevage,” as this type of slow, deliberate aging of alcohol is referred to in France, is difficult to pinpoint, difficult to define. All the more complicated by the fact that these whiskies have, in effect, a multiplicity of terroirs.  The barley is grown, harvested, and transformed into alcohol in Scotland (and, apparently, individual ‘terroirs’ of barley fields are effectively nonexistent, the ‘taste of place’ not seeming to infuse into a perennial plant that is then severely transformed into a distilled product).  The ‘mother’ alcohol is then shipped to France, where it is funneled into specially chosen casks.  These casks are full of history, which they subsequently instill into the whisky with which they are impregnated.

Michel Couvreur Whiskies chooses each cask individually.  The histories of the casks can be quite varied, but they all contained a potent, richly aromatic wine for a period of 40 to 50 years. The most typically used casks are those of Sherry wines, but also sought-after are variants such as Pedro Ximénez, the local sherry-like wine, Vin Jaune from the Jura region, or Colheita and Tawny Ports.  The casks are shipped to Bouze-les-Beaune immediately after being emptied (when regulations allow, Couvreur prefer to ship the casks filled, as dryness is the enemy of wooden casks, making them vulnerable to spoilage and prone to leakage later on) and are refilled, without rinsing or the addition of sulfur, with the mother alcohol.  Then the casks are sealed and stocked, for 3, 8, 10, 20… years – as long as it takes to achieve the desired result.

Frantzen adheres to a philosophy of the 8-year plan for whiskies.  During the first three years the grains of the original alcohol tend to dominate.  Then the whiskies enter the adolescent phase, commencing their maturity but with remaining marks of hotness and youth from the alcohol.  Around the 8 year point, the whisky begins to integrate and complexify, ultimately reaching a point of balance – the sweet spot where you aren’t whopped over the head with alcohol when you take a sniff, and you notice a proper level of complexity.

This complexity can be overdone however, spinning out of control and going more towards overwhelming than enjoyable. Towards the end of its life in barrel, the whisky begins to take on more of the aromas that reflect the history of the barrel, seemingly reverting to a reflection of the barrel’s unique aroma fingerprint. This fascinating transformation (that should be carefully considered in attempting to understand the aging processes of any alcoholic beverage, including wine), can, unfortunately, go too far.  The sweet spot can give way to earthy, mushroomy, woody, sherry-like aromas that overpower the freshness of the cereals and ultimately destroy the complexity that is so prized in a quality whisky.  The difficulty is that the point of maturity, and thus of overripeness, is different for each barrel.  Frantzen compares this to individual human beings – we don’t all age at the same rate, with genetics, and more importantly, lifestyle, playing an important role in whether we look and feel our age.  Someone who leads a high-stress lifestyle might feel ‘older’ at 40 than an individual who has learned to manage their stress.

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My personal favorite name for a whisky, “Intravagan’za” is meant to evoke the complexity, sparkle, explosion of this whisky in the mouth, all with measured restraint, internalizing the extravaganza. 

Besides overaging, other factors can lead to imbalance in whisky.  The problem is primarily due to attempts to ‘modernize’ the production process, using shortcuts to mature a whisky in a reduced amount of time, and thus turn a profit more quickly.  This is the general trend of innovation in whisky production, with some trial being more effective than others.  Tests have been run on the fineness of the grind used to produce the base alcohol, with higher surface area thought to give more complexity to the resulting distillate. The use of different yeast strains, as in winemaking and beer brewing, is used to alter the aroma profile of the base alcohol (note that in whisky production, as for beer, spontaneous fermentations by indigenous yeast do not occur as the grains don’t contain sugars that are accessible to these yeasts until starches are broken down by enzymatic processes).  Microoxygenation has been considered (though the high alcohol content of the whisky clears the pores of wood casks, rendering even old casks effective microoxygenation systems), though whisky making is a very secretive process, and this method shares a similar, skeptical, reception amongst whisky consumers as it does amongst certain wine consumers (justifiably or not), and thus is not widely communicated about.  Some producers use smaller cask (i.e. 50 L instead of the typical 500L used by Couvreur) to increase the surface area of the cask and thus the contact of the whisky with wood and with oxygen. According to Frantzen, this method often results in unbalanced whiskies.  Most of this innovation occurs outside of Scotland, as Scotch producers are focused on replicating the consistent quality that they have built a reputation for over the centuries.  Thus a producer like Couvreur gives us the opportunity to taste a Scotch that has branched out a bit from its roots (in particular those aged in barrels from Vin Jaune or even Burgundy wines).

And the results?  Personally I found them stunning.  Frantzen told us that given the origins of the barrels and the complexity that they seek to create at Couvreur, wine aficionados are often particularly apt to appreciate their whiskies.  With the two whiskies I was fortunate enough to taste (Overaged Malt Whisky and Blossoming Auld Sherried Single Malt Whisky) I wholeheartedly agree – these are definitely whiskies for wine lovers, and whisky lovers too.  Any producer that puts this much passion and care into their product is bound to have a good chance of creating something delicious.

 

 

 

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“Fleeting” is the producer’s whisky that is a different blend at each bottling, eternally changing and evolving.

When ignorance is bliss – for science’s relationship to society

I recently watched, and loved, Professor Stuart Firestein’s TEDtalk on “The Pursuit of Ignorance.”

Firestein, a professor and researcher of olfactory neuroscience at Columbia (the pertinence of his subject to mine already draws some important links between us, but just wait for more) presents an exposé on how science is really done, versus how it is often perceived by the public.

I highly recommend that you watch the talk itself (around 20 minutes and well worth the time), but here I’ll provide a bit of a summary and mostly my reaction, relevant whether or not you have time to watch the whole thing.

I find his assessment of the modern public perception of science very accurate – that it is often perceived as (and more importantly, I think, purported to be) a “well-ordered mechanism” that leads us neatly from a question, down the neatly hedged path of the rule-based scientific method toward the production of “hard cold facts.”

This, he proclaims, is in total contrast to the real way in which science is conducted, which he claims to be more similar to “bumbling around in a dark room” looking for answers that may or may not be within.

I found all of this wonderful, as I love when people, particularly scientists, recognize the great divide between the perception of science and what science actually means, but his next point was really where he brought it home for me, helping me to realize where some of my personal interest in this subject of the perception of science really comes from.

He discusses his experience as a lecturer, teaching a general course on neuroscience, and how he realized that the manner of presenting the course, with a giant textbook (weighing the same as two brains… now how are students supposed to be able to fit all that in their single brain, anyways?) and force-feeding lecture method, must give the impression that “we already know all there is to know about the brain”.

This sentence brought me back to the hard chairs of my high-school chemistry class, where, in fact, I fell in love with the idea that everything was already understood.  I think this is precisely why I’ve always struggled a bit in my research experiences, as they are, in reality, a world apart from what you learn in a course, and how the material is presented.  I actually chose my major in college because I preferred the coursework in chemistry over biology, because I always felt that it was more well-defined, precise, mathematical, but a part of me never really understood why more research needed to be done in this discipline, which in my years of courses, seemed to be so… complete.

In stark contrast to this world of knowns, this world of facts and certainty, the world of research is wide-open.  Questions, hypotheses and theories are posed, modified, proposed, and reposed, but rarely are these things we call “facts” defined.

I have seen this gap.  This wide crevice between how science is presented in school and how science is “done.”  And it shocked me.  But I was one of the lucky ones – I was introduced to ‘real’ research at the tender age of 16.  But still, throughout my years of academic training, I felt this disconnect – I always had a bit of trouble connecting what I learned in class and what I did in the lab.  They were related, but didn’t ever feel like the same activity, or even that they utilized the same cortices of the brain.

Firestein explains why scientists need to know all of these “facts” – to be able to pose good questions.  But the fact of the matter is that they don’t everything, just everything that is specific to their particular field (which is typically very narrow).

He proposes that it is this, the questioning, that is what is interesting in science, where the magic (or science, as it were) really happens. This is why he’s chosen to study ‘ignorance’.  He goes on to explain what he means by this, and I’ll let his own words speak for themselves there, but basically he is referring to everything that we don’t know.  A process of “question propagation” where working to answer one question creates still others.

I think he is right, that the way we present science to students needs to be modified.  We need to reflect more of this unknown, this ignorance, that predominates in science.  Students should be presented with a clearer picture of what research is really about, not only to help keep them interested in science by assuring them that there is plenty left to be done (which is important in itself), but also as a sort of societal insurance (nothing like ObamaCare – don’t worry – I don’t think this one would create so much controversy. Let alone a government shutdown).  The more accurate society’s picture of “science” is, and how it is done, the better.  The smaller the gap between “the perception and pursuit of science,” as Firestein puts it, the better.  People should be critical of scientific “discovery”, they should allow themselves to question, just like they would of any other discipline.  Experts are experts, but they are not deities.  Science is not here to dictate facts, but to open our minds and give us tools to explore our natural world.  But science often has an impact on the populace – think of nuclear energy, the ethics of GMOs or stem cells, etc.  Having a more accurate vision of science would help society to be able to make their own assessments of scientific advances and their greater implications. The more knowledge we have about ignorance, the better.  For everyone.

More info can be found on Professor Firestein’s website, about him, his research, the course on Ignorance, and his book, which I’m currently reading in Kindle version.

Truffles: The Quest for {Culinary} Black Gold

I knew that pigs are used to hunt for truffles, but not dogs.  So when I learned that there is a particular breed with the innate ability to sniff out the esteemed fungi, the Lagotto Romagnolo.

I was lucky enough to join in on a truffle hunt in Burgundy, home of the Burgundian truffle (Tuber aestivum).  A different species than the more well-known black truffle (Tuber melanosporum) which grows in the Perigord region, the Burgundian version is equally delicious (I recommend it thinly sliced in a simple salad of garden-fresh lettuce and vinagrette, if you are lucky enough to get your hands on them!).

Truffles can be cultivated, in a sense, by taking advantage of the symbiotic relationship between the truffles’ mycelia and the root system of certain types of trees, such as cedars, oaks, and hazels.  If a grove is planted in the appropriate soil conditions (the Burgundian truffle prefers calcarious soil types), the mycelia, or underground component of the fungus, will follow the roots of the trees as they grow up (providing the appropriate shaded and forested conditions), establishing the necessary conditions for truffle production.

The truffle hunter can attempt to search for the prized fungi by himself, but as they are often present as deep as 30 centimeters below the surface, he isn’t likely to have much luck alone.  Luckily, he has several tools available at his disposal – pigs, dogs, and flies.  The difficulty with pigs and dogs is that they must be trained not to eat their spoils.  But this is likely a simpler task than keeping track of your fly!

Though this hasn’t been a great year for truffle hunting, with the help of two canine noses we managed to walk away with a decent harvest!

Tiempo libre

Here’s a quick peek at some of the things I’ve been up to lately while not at the winery…

(Santiago)

(descubando – okay this was at the winery, but not something I do regularly)

(llama on the beach – Pichilemu, Chile)

(Fresh fish for about US$4 per kilo, sold directly from the boat that was towed ashore by a pair of tractors)

(Pichilemu)

(Punta de lobos, Pichilemu)

(Rancagua)

(Sopapilla)

(football match – equipo O’Higgins de Rancagua)

Christchurch: A Reminder of Nature’s Power

In September 2010 and February 2011, earthquakes devastated the Christchurch area.  Much of the city center was destroyed by damage from the shaking itself, and some of the suburbs were impacted most heavily by what is known as soil liquefaction.  Aftershocks continue to be felt, and the city is only just beginning to reopen, let alone recover.  Still, there is much evidence of solidarity and a commitment to move forward throughout the city.

The heart of the city center is inaccessible, blocked off by chain link fences.  Here you can see the recently deconsecrated Christchurch Cathedral, slated for partial demolition after irreparable damage from the February quake.

Repairs underway at the Christchurch Arts Centre are expected to take years to complete.

Many of the city’s streets remain blocked off, detours and alternative bus routes remain in use.

A festive piece in the “Road Cone Art Exhibition” at the Botanical Gardens, a series of road cone themed works in honor of the 60,000 road cones set up on Christchurch streets today.

More damage in the city center.

Hearts on display at the Canterbury Museum as part of the Hearts for Christchurch project initiated by Napier’s Evie Harris to show support and solidarity for those affected by the quake.  The more than 4,000 hearts on display come from all over the world.

Photos of what has become known as “Container City.”  A few stores in one of the city’s main shopping districts have recently reopened inside temporary “buildings” made from shipping containers.  The area is now bustling with residents eager to return to life as usual, but sits just on the edge of the still-closed city center, in acknowledgment of the reality that still faces the recovering city.

A damaged house on the cliffs of Sumner, one of the beach suburbs of Christchurch.

Just across the road from the photo above.  It is incredibly humbling to be reminded of the strength of nature, especially when also surrounded by its beauty.