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.

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Harvest 2014 : A worthwhile compromise

Yes, it has been an inexcusably long time since my last post, and yes, I hate it just as much as anyone when bloggers post their excuses for their extended absences, but really, I have a good excuse. Or two, in fact.

Harvest 2014 and a Master’s thesis.

harvest hands_MFEWine-stained hands finishing up a Master’s thesis

I defended my Master’s thesis, “Targeted and Untargeted Analysis of Premature Oxidation in White Burgundy Wines Issued from Different Vinification Strategies,” in French, last week in the midst of 2014’s incredibly abundant harvest.

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View from the vineyards at Saint Jean du Barroux

In the AOC Ventoux, where I’m working for the winery Saint Jean du Barroux, 2014 was an atypical vintage. The grapes were bloated due to an abnormal excess of rain throughout the growing season, producing a record-high average bunch weight for the appellation. During maturity checks before harvest began, I noted enormous bunches, which in certain zones of the vineyard were having a hard time achieving ripeness – there were colossal bunches bursting with pink and green grapes interspersed with more reasonably-sized bunches that were already ripe. Philippe Gimel, the owner and winemaker of Saint Jean du Barroux, subscribes to the motto that winemaking is all about compromises. But the tactical approach we put into action turned out to be a win-win on three fronts. We began harvest by going through the most heavily loaded plots to harvest only the biggest, least ripe bunches, which we pressed to make a fresh, bright rosé. Meanwhile, the vine, her load significantly lightened, could focus her energy on ripening the remaining bunches to perfection, and could do so with a greatly reduced risk of disease. High yield and big bunches mean that the grapes are crowded up against each other, trapping moisture and reducing the potential for airflow – a perfect storm for the propagation of rot.

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View from the winery at Saint Jean du Barroux

After a whirlwind three weeks, the compromise seems to have paid off. Now the winery is bursting with wine, almost all of the alcoholic fermentations now completed and all but two tanks of red pressed and racked. Now we’ll be able to sit back and enjoy the fruits of our labor – watching the evolution of these new, promising wines and deciding on blends. The theme of compromise will always remain at the forefront, as this is key in winemaking : compromise between quality and quantity, effort and patience, acidity and tannin, knowledge and know-how, power and delicacy, and of course, art and science.

2014-10-16 18.05.58Saint Jean du Barroux’s Pierre Noire presented at the post-graduation tasting for the Master International Vintage class of 2014

WAC 2014 Recap Series : Steven Shapin – Modernity in a Glass

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The Third Edition of the International Conference Series on Wine Active Compounds, affectionately known as WAC 2014, was an overwhelming success in many regards, but most notably in the bridging of disciplines.  Partly a result of the participation of the UNESCO Chair “Culture and Traditions of Wine”, based at the University of Burgundy, the organizers of WAC strove toward the integration of natural and social sciences, rather unique for an international congress – particularly one that is, at its core, focused on wine chemistry.  Social science lectures were interspersed throughout the conference, falling between the more traditional lab-based research talks, but always maintaining a coherent link to the session theme. In honor of the success of this project, I will be devoting a series of posts to exploring some of the themes that were brought to light during the convention, including the regulation of enological practices, role of the sensory sciences, the notion of complexity, the neuroscience of perception, biodynamics, and the role of wine compounds in some key human diseases including Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, metabolic disorders, intestinal inflammation and cardiac disease.

To kick off the series, I’ll begin with what for me was the most exciting talk of the conference – the keynote given by Harvard historian of science Steven Shapin.  I walked into the first day of WAC 2014 with stars in my eyes, as after 4 college years filled with as many History of Science and Science Studies courses as I could fit, to me Shapin is a true celebrity, and I’d had no idea that he took an interest in wine.

His talk was entitled “How does wine taste? Sense, science, and the market.” He dove right into a lecture about the history of how we describe what we taste in a wine.  There is, he argues, a dramatic split that occurred in the 20th century, fundamentally altering the manner in which we talk about wine. And this division corresponds to significant scientific and market changes in the same period.

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From the time of Aristotle up until the pre-WWII era, the specific lexicon used to describe wines was quite restrained, with only such words as “sweet”, “acute”, “austere” and “mild”, as well as terms for faulty wines, being regularly employed. Wines were more often described in terms of their medical properties or physiological effects, and people were more inclined to compare wine to poetry or particular emotions than to specific flavors. It wasn’t that people didn’t appreciate and evaluate wines – they certainly did as evidenced by the 1855 Bordeaux Classification – clearly wine aficionados were interested in differentiating and evaluating wines here, but they didn’t need to be able to describe the wines to make an opinion about it.

So what changed?  How did we end up with the current trend, wines “described as more or less complex aggregates of individual [flavor] components” – an “analytical” approach that reduces a wine to a series of comparisons to other foods or smells? The answer, according to Shapin, lies in the interplay between scientific and market changes that occurred around the mid-20th century.

A general trend began in chemistry, biology and physics, resulting at least partially from increasingly powerful analytical techniques, toward a focus on constituents of substances or organisms rather than their more general qualities.  The modern reductionist paradigm began to characterize science, attempting to understand systems by first understanding their constituent parts. This trend was reflected in the development of enology and sensory analysis in French and American institutions (notably the University of Bordeaux and UC Davis), where a focus on discovering the particular molecules in wine became paramount.  The understanding of the molecular composition of wine aroma fit effortlessly with a sensory model that breaks the aroma into its individual components, each of which associated with a corresponding molecule that can be isolated and measured.

Ultimately, this type of reductionist description trickled down into consumer culture, but how? The key, says Shapin, was the concomitant expansion of New World wine drinking markets. Wine has always been associated with a certain prestige and connoisseurship, and these new consumers were seeking an accessible vocabulary with which they could discuss their newfound beverage of choice. The most accessible, setting aside the flowery, poetic descriptions of the past in favor of more direct and analytic language with a clear link to chemistry, was UC Davis sensory scientist Maynard Amerine’s lexicon of descriptors that were systematically associated with “real wine compounds” (published in 1976 and available on Amazon). This type of description was, perhaps most influentially, adopted by Robert Parker in his publication the Wine Advocate, the first edition of which was released in the same year as Amerine’s book.

Thus, argues Shapin, the style of tasting notes that remains most widespread even today, a list of individual flavors of which a wine is comprised, is not a natural consequence of physiological sensation. No, like all human activities, wine description has a historical background, a past linked to concrete events that have shaped how we understand and articulate our thoughts. Wine is, he says, “modernity in a glass”, bringing together the sensations of taste with the worldview of modern science and consumer culture.

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.

The public weighs in on wine science : questions from the ACS Webinar with Susan Ebeler

I just sat in on the ACS Webinar (acswebinars.org or facebook.com/acswebinars) by UC Davis researcher Susan Ebeler on “Wine Science: Designing Wine.  While the content itself was very interesting, most of it was familiar to me as Dr. Ebeler came to give a lecture series to my class in Valencia (as mentioned in this post), what I found particularly fascinating was the stream of questions rolling in from audience members over the course of the hour-long lecture.

The audience consisted of over 1001 participants, from all around the world (Argentina to Poland), and ranged from winemakers to bloggers to researchers to an entire “Chemistry of beer, wine, and bourbon” class.  Thus the questions represent an interesting cross section of what the world wants to know about wine.  What people don’t understand, such as the question wondering if the floral and fruity notes in wine just come from the added flavors, or if there is another source, as well as suggestions that those embedded in the wine world on a day-to-day basis might never have considered.

Dr. Ebeler didn’t have time to respond to most of the questions (something like 180 were posed), but I collected some of the ones that I found particularly intriguing, for one reason or another, whether they were answered or not :

  • “Do you think most of the flavor components in wine have been chemically identified, and can be measured with current GCMS technologies?” – this one Dr. Ebeler was able to get to.  Her response was that we’ve found all the major compounds, and anything else would be trace compounds (such as Rotundone, the compound responsible for the black pepper aromas of syrah) and that finding new compounds will continue to get more difficult as we already have found the ‘easy’ ones.  I don’t disagree with any of what she said here, but I think that it is important to qualify this statement given her description of the complexity of the sensory effects of wine.  Since there is often little correlation between the concentration of a compound and our ability to perceive it, as well as the complex interactions possible between different aromatic and flavor compounds, it is very possible that molecules present in trace quantities could have a significant impact on the perceived flavor, aroma, or even texture of a wine.
  • “I have heard that some people, particularly in Japan, choose their wines based on their GC spectra, what are your thoughts?” – this one she didn’t have time to answer, but I thought it was a particularly interesting comment.  I don’t know if this is indeed the case, though it does ring a bell.  I’d love to know if anyone has more information about this.  If it is true, I think that this is a fascinating use of what most nonscientists would consider a highly complex analytical technique into popular culture, and would really like to know how this came about and the specifics of how it is used.
  • “Has there been any work on transesterification during fermentation, to tailor the finished wine for a specific bouquet?” –   Dr. Ebeler responded that this would likely be too complicated and difficult to target any specific ester, and wasn’t confident that it would be able to reliably give the desired effects.  However, I thought it was a very interesting question, and one that could only come from the mind of a chemist approaching wine from an outside perspective.  I doubt many winemakers or even wine chemists would consider attempting such a reaction on wine, but why not? And ideas like this one, though they may never lead to technological advances in wine, could help us think of processes that already occur in wine in a different light, giving new insight that may lead to new or deepened understanding.
  • “Is there an objective testing mechanism that does not involve subjective human perception?” –  I thought this was a great question to be posed, in terms of how it reflects upon the current scientific paradigm. Why do we feel the need to eliminate ‘subjective human perception’ from the evaluation of a process (tasting wine) that is entirely dependent on human perception, in fact, it IS human perception.  But this is a quest that we are constantly on, how to remove subjectivity from a subjective experience.  This should, I think, cause us to raise our own questions about how science works, where its limits are, and what new approaches/philosophies might be able to help us resolve this quest to understand rigorously a subjective, sensory process.

You can see coverage of the webinar (mostly mine) by checking out #ACSwebinars

For ACS members, the webinar will be available after 1 week at acswebinars.org/wine-design

Follow ACS webinars on Twitter @ACSwebinars or facebook at  facebook.com/acswebinars

The pressure is on…

The Master Vintage has moved to Italy!  The class arrived 2 weeks ago to Piacenza, to start our viticulture unit at the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore.  During our first three weeks we only have Italian language courses, and have been utilizing our down time to explore the viticultural region around Piacenza.


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Many of the wines in this region, both whites and reds, are “frizzante”, or lightly sparkling, but many “vini firmi” are also produced, typically bearing a slightly bigger price tag.  I’m still tasting my way through the local appellations, or Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC), but a few that I’ve discovered so far include Colli Piacentini, Gutturnio, Guttornio Superiore, Ortugo, and Monterosso Val d’Arda.  Some of the common varietals used in the region include Malvasia, Ortugo, Moscato Bianco, Trebbiano Ramagnola, Sauvignon, Bonarda, Barbera, and Cabernet Sauvignon, among others.

20130418_155134(Pressure gauge on an ‘autochiave’ tank)

We visited a producer just down the road from our house, Bongiorni Agostino, who explained to us (*full disclosure – the informal visit, which lasted around 2 hours, was conducted entirely in Italian on the fourth day of our Italian course… thus the information was pieced together from the understanding of us 5 students who speak 3 different languages between us) the process used in making his wines.  The the fermentation is begun as usual, and at a certain point in the fermentation process the wines are ‘racked’ (transferred), to a special type of tank called an “autochiave” which can be sealed to maintain the pressure inside as the carbon dioxide produced during fermentation collects in the sealed vessel.  He can control the pressure inside the tank, and therefore can maintain the carbon dioxide naturally produced by fermentation in the wines.  Some of the wines are “dolce”, or slightly sweet, and for these the fermentation is stopped when there is some sugar remaining, either naturally (the yeast are poisoned naturally by their own production of alcohol), or by centrifugation, where he is able to eliminate all solids from the fermenting wine, including the yeast.

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Chateau d’Yquem: Fastidiousness in a Bottle

DSC_0591(Château d’Yquem)

On our recent study trip to Bordeaux, my class had the pleasure of visiting the prestigious producer of Sauternes, Château d’Yquem.  In fact, prestigious may not be a strong enough word, as Château d’Yquem is the only domaine in Sauternes classified as “Premier Cru Supérieur” in the Bordeaux wine classification of 1855 (the system which continues to dictate the classification today, more than 150 years later).  They are also the only producer of Sauternes who do not produce a second label, a sort of all-or-nothing approach that means that years of less-than-ideal weather conditions, they simply do not produce their wine, as they would otherwise risk declassification.  And in fact, 2012 was just horrible enough that we will never see a bottle of the precious golden liquid from this vintage.  They will still produce the wine (though the putrid conditions this year left them with only 216 barrels, as compared with about 900 in 2011) but it will be sold to négociants (wine traders who buy bulk wine, blend it, and then put their own labels on), who are forbidden from putting the name Château d’Yquem anywhere near the finished product.  So the 2012 Château d’Yquem will be lost in the shuffle of 2012 Sauternes, cleverly disguised so as not to tarnish the reputation of the esteemed château.

DSC_0556(Château d’Yquem in the rain, in a reflection of the disastrous weather conditions of 2012)

But despite its lack of existence this year, the meticulous process for making Château d’Yquem remains astounding.  Their nearly 40 year-round vineyard employees (17 of whom are women) are each responsible, year in and year out, for performing a series of 50 pruning maneuvers on the same parcel.  This way each worker develops a rapport with the plot, and can provide the most comprehensive, fastidious care possible.  All of this in preparation for the harvest season, which can only commence after the appearance of the illustrious noble rot (botrytis cinerea), which requires very particular weather conditions (foggy, moist mornings and bright, clear afternoons) and results in a beautiful dehydration and concentration of the grapes (of which 80% are semillon and 20% are sauvignon blanc).   These botyrized grapes are harvested in a series of passes through the vineyard (which could occur over a period of days, weeks, or even months), first selecting only the botyrized grapes and then passing through to collect the non-affected grapes which, even still, have ripened to obtain a sugar content of 20° potential alcohol (this means that if fermented to completion, this juice could attain up to 20% alcohol – and even more for the botyrized grapes – of course this is not the intent, but rather to ferment partially with remaining sugar at the end).  Furthermore, at each pass through the vineyard, there is a triple selection, grape by grape.  First by the harvester him- or herself, then when the small collection baskets are transferred into larger bins for transport to the winery, and finally upon arrival at the winery, just before pressing.

DSC_0566(Re-composed image showing all of the stages of botyrization of grapes.  Harvest occurs grape-by-grape either of the shriveled, fully dehydrated grapes, or of the plumper, non-infected grapes, depending on the interest of the particular pass through the vineyard)

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Grapes are harvested not by parcell, but by ripeness, so on a given day the lot that is harvested could include grapes from across the property.  In this way grapes from the four different soil types of Château d’Yquem, clay, sand, gravel, and limestone are assimilated into one single wine, to which the company attributes the complexity of the wine.

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And what does all of this borderline-obsessive TLC and terroir-mingling give in a wine?  We were able to taste the 2006, which was described to us as not the greatest year, but still gives a good idea of what those of us who can’t afford a 500€ bottle of wine are missing.

First impression? Eggnog! Maybe it was the coming holiday season, but when I plunged my nose in the glass before swirling the liquid gold inside, the aromas of nutmeg-y creaminess jumped right out of the chalice in my hands.  But upon swirling in a bit of oxygen – the gas responsible not only for our lives, but also the lives of our wines – honey, dried apricots, figs, and even notes of tropical fruits such as mango, pineapple and passionfruit.  Thanks to its well-balanced acidity, the wine enters the mouth fresh and clean, evoking more citrus-y, summer-y fruits, which evolve toward more candied versions and then are rounded out by a bit of oak on the finish.  The oak isn’t overwhelming, but gently supportive, carrying the wine on its journey through the mouth as if in a basket.

But is it worth the price?  This will forever remain the question, and a valid one at that, for wines at this price point.

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 P.S. Oh, and just for the sake of thought-provocation, in whatever direction you choose… what I found to be quite an interesting quote from our guide during the visit (translated by me from French, very-nearly exactly):  “We don’t do biodynamics because they [the head-honchos] are scientists.  Thus we dont talk about the cycle of the moon.”