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.