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.

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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.

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.

The art and science of high stakes

I tend to focus on the technical aspects of wine, but some recent winery visits and conversations with winemakers have gotten me wondering about the science and art of commercialization.  Commerce and marketing are always integral to winemaking, as sales allow for investment, and often the business end directs the technical decisions in the winery.

In Spain, this integration of affairs and production is particularly pronounced given the current economic situation. Diego Fernández Pons, winemaker at Bodegas Enguera in the D.O. Valencia compares money to energy – the source of nourishment for a business, which, these days, requires particular ingenuity and effort to acquire. Wine consumption amongst the Spanish, as in all of the Old World wine nations, is on the decline. According to Pedro Iglesias, also a winemaker at Enguera, the consumption of around 17 liters per habitant per year is not enough to be able to build up the local market first.  It is true that in general, products of “terroir”, which valorize their sense of place, typically earn that value first in their home community, a value that can then be applied in the export market.  There are, of course, other, ecological benefits to selling locally, reducing the transport footprint of the wines, though this is a complex topic in wine, where outside of their place of production, much of their worth and renown is based on the fact that they were produced in an often highly glorified wine region.

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(Vineyard in D.O. Valencia)

So instead of selling locally, Enguera is exporting 90% of their wines, and apparently this is a common theme amongst Spanish wineries.  Since the beginning of the crisis, winemakers and marketers have packed up their bags to go traveling around the world in search of new export markets (keep in mind that Spain has the largest surface area of vineyards of any country in the world, and is the third largest producer by volume of wine – that makes for a lot of wine to get rid of if people aren’t buying it within the country).

Clearly then, the business side of things is important, crucial even, to the success of a winery.  But what is the best way to approach it?  Like much else in wine, it seems like the best approach is a sprinkling of art, solidified with a bit of science.

The ART of trend prediction.

Wine is not a product that is sold immediately.  At a bare minimum, production (of the final product… the production of the raw material starts much earlier) starts about 2 months before a wine could possibly be sold.  And these are the youngest wines, meant to be drunk immediately off of store shelves.  But often, a winery will work on a wine, in fermentation tanks, barrels and bottles, for several years before releasing it.  This means that during the year that the grapes are harvested and the majority of the pivotal decisions are made, the winemaker must be thinking ahead.  He must predict what people will be buying in 3, 5, even 7 or 8 years, to assure that he and his product will be relevant when that wine hits stores.

And this prediction must be blended with the answer to what, according to Diego, is the most important marketing questions there is : Does the world need my wine?

Winemakers must be able to make a wine that has some importance.  Something different. Maybe it expresses a beautiful classic terroir, but even that is questionable.  How many Barbarescos can the market support? It has to either have quality or value, but it also should have something more.  A story behind it. This is up to the creativity of the winemaker, as well as the marketing team (if they’re not one-and-the-same, which they often are).

One tool that many larger wineries employ is to create different products, and even different brands, to appeal to different markets. This diversification can help a winery respond to the two above challenges – of trend production and making itself relevant.  But in classical producer countries, especially in France, this can be a tricky issue since a lot of producers want to remain true to their terroir, and thus only produce the best of what their particular combination of variety, soil, microclimate and geography will give them.  But there’s some breathing room, I think, while still respecting terroir.  There will certainly be some diversity in the winery – different tanks vinified from grapes from different plots, different fractions of the press (juice/wine quality varies with the pressure exerted on the grapes during pressing), different varieties, etc., which all give options for blending at the end.  And instead of putting everything together to make one medium-quality wine, producers have various options to create different products appealing to different tastes and at different price points.

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(The diversification of wine brands : labels produced by Bodegas Enguera)

And then there’s the science

The technical aspects that can be tinkered with to meet business goals and constraints.  This could take on many different forms, but I’ll just look at a couple of examples : mechanical harvesters, selected yeast, and wood chips.

Modern mechanical harvesting machines are increasingly selective in what they bring back to the winery and what they leave behind, with the capacity to separate healthy, ripe grapes from stems, leaves, rotten grapes, unripe grapes and other debris.  The Enguera winemakers assert that they can be at least as efficient in collecting a clean harvest than a team of manual workers, especially if the pickers are untrained or unmotivated (I can attest to this – I have hand-harvested my share of grapes and it is true that after a few hot, sticky hours, it can be very difficult to remain diligent). And it is a huge money and time saver (if the size of the winery and vineyards permits).

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 (mechanical harvester in action)

Selected yeast can be either purchased from commercial suppliers or can even be cultured from a winery’s native yeast population.  The debate is still simmering on this issue, but it is generally accepted that selected yeasts are a more sure bet, as the winemaker can have a good idea of the conditions needed for fermentation, and most importantly the types of aromas that will be generated.

Wood chips put into the tank during or after fermentation are becoming a widely adopted practice, especially in large-scale wineries, and especially in the new world (they are often not permitted in European appellations).  But these products are a much cheaper alternative to putting wine in a barrel, and for certain quality levels of wines, can be a logical, economical replacement.

But the bottom line for such ‘nontraditional’ methodologies was quite nicely summed up by Diego. These can be useful tools, but only in the case where your consumer doesn’t care that you are using them.  I think this is a useful distinction to make, because the quality level or price point dividing wines that should or shouldn’t use oak chips is tricky to determine.  Diego’s philosophy is to be very up front about any technologies that he uses, so he would only recommend using them on wines where he knows that the customer would have no problem with it.  It is often a question of risk-reduction, and can thus be very beneficial, if it is in line with that all-important “story” of the wine.  If the wine is being marketed as completely natural, clearly the amount of inputs and manipulations must be kept to an absolute minimum.

So the success of a wine business is just a careful balance of art and science?

If only it were so simple

There’s also a fight.  The current examples of excellence are in Europe, but this is an issue all over the world.  Alcohol has risks.  Governments don’t tend to like risks.

In Spain, alcohol legislation is becoming stricter, adding to the list of difficulties faced by wine producers.  In France, it is the same story.  Anti-alcohol measures have been making headlines in France this week, the country often seen as the motherland of wine.

The current 4-part uproar concerns the potential extension of the law “Evin”, which strictly limits advertising of alcoholic products in France, to the internet and social networks.  There is also confusion between what is considered advertising and what is considered journalism, putting even critics’ columns at risk.  Additionally, the government is considering an increase in the tax levied on this product, which is the 2nd biggest export activity in the country.  And finally, they want to change the wording of the warning labels put on alcoholic products and advertisements for them. Currently it states that the abuse of alcohol is dangerous to health, but the new wording would simply read “Alcohol is dangerous to health”, thus eliminating any question of drinking with moderation (which, in the case of wine, is often suggested to be beneficial to health).

France’s response?  Just look at the words of the president and vice-president of the Interprofessional council of the wines of Bordeaux, Bernard Farges and Allan Sichel, who proclaimed, “we cannot accept to be considered dealers.” (sudouest.fr)

So the stakes are high, and the obstacles higher.  But somehow, with the perfect blend of creativity and technology, winemakers must create their perfect audience, and cater to them.

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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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 

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.

Vitec

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!!!