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

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Taste and feel, don’t think and do

This is the motto of winemaker PJ Barton, with whom I shared a fabulous 2 weeks at Barton Estate in Bot River, about an hour from Cape Town.  PJ has many, many ideas (most of them, he would say, a bit crazy) about winemaking, and happily shared his wealth of information throughout the time I stayed with him.  I worked with him a bit in the cellar, went with him to marketing lunches, consultation visits, and a meeting of the Bot River Association of Winemakers.  We had many intriguing conversations over many bottles of wine, his insights helping to fill out my knowledge and our conversations helping me to articulate some of the conclusions I’m beginning to draw from my experiences this year.

PJ is all about making wine from the heart.  When we went through the cellar to taste each tank and barrel, he asked me to leave my notebook behind so we could just talk about how each wine played on our palate, filled out our mouths, and, my personal favorite, personify the wines a bit.  PJ frequently would describe wines and winemaking processes in human terms, such as when he explained his feeling that a barrel is a doctor for a ‘problem wine’, and that the best thing to do with wine you’re having trouble with is to stick it in a barrel and wait, as the mediated flow of oxygen and the unique cylindrical shape of the barrel will bring the wine back into balance.  He often talks about wines in such terms, intuitive rather than scientific.  But to be honest, maybe this is a more informative way to think about wine.  The system is so complex that science can only understand one aspect at a time, breaking it down into simpler, controllable parts.  And for this reason I think it is important to have an alternative manner for thinking about the system.  Not that we should abandon the science, by any means, as it provides an incredibly valuable perspective as well, but consider the analogy of medicine and biology.  The human body is, also, an incredibly complex system, and science and western medicine represent one way of approaching it – breaking down the body into individual systems, trying to understand biology from a micro-scale and treating these individual components when there is a problem.  Contrast this with something like Chinese medicine, which we don’t have the capacity to “scientifically” understand in the western sense of the word, because science isn’t set up to answer those types of questions.  Chinese medicine represents a completely different approach, looking at the whole system rather than breaking it down into smaller parts.  I think that PJ’s approach to winemaking is in many ways analogous to this holistic approach, and it works.  I can’t say it is better or worse than a more ‘scientific’ approach, but it does have a lot of historical precedent in the old world, where people have been making wine from the heart, without access to scientific tools, for centuries.

As a contrast to PJ’s ‘from the heart’ approach, consider the case of winemaker  Rudy ?? at Bilton Estate in Stellenbosch.  PJ and I went to see him and tour his winery, and he showed us some of the ‘experimental’ wines he is working on.  The most intellectually intriguing (though I didn’t taste it so I can’t speak to that side of things) wine he had was one he refers to as 500% oaked.  This means that he put the wine in a new French oak barrel after fermentation, ages it there for one year, then moves it to a fresh barrel for a year, repeating this process for a total of 5 years.  He claims (though again, I didn’t taste it so I can’t say from experience) that it is not overly tannic, and when I asked why he thinks this would be, he offered an explanation based on tannin saturation.  Using an analogy of basketballs (tannins) and golf balls, tennis balls, and marbles (smaller molecules in the wine), he explained his theory that the wine will become saturated relatively quickly with tannins, as they are bigger, but there will remain plenty of nooks and crannies between the ‘basketballs’ in which can fit the smaller molecules – flavor and aroma compounds, etc, which will continue to be extracted from each new barrel.  I’m not sure if I agree with this explanation from a chemical perspective, as most of the small molecules in oak should actually be easier to extract than the tannins, but that isn’t my point, which is to demonstrate a very, very different approach to thinking about the wine.  Rudy has invested time and energy to research and postulate a theory explaining what he sees in his wine from a molecular perspective, while PJ would never do something like this.  His approach, rather, is to do what makes sense intuitively, based on his many years of experience making wine.  Though arguably a less ‘rigorous’ approach, I strongly believe that is has at least as much validity as any other, because like it or not, wine has this element of mystery, of surprise and unpredictability, and that is precisely what keeps it interesting.


El Campo de Amaral

(Jaime and I attempting to take a self-timer shot, but I think the way we were caught by surprise in this photo is indicative of the ever-surprising nature of vintage)

Some winemakers see their job as one that takes place predominantly in the winery, and others, like Jaime de la Cerda, are committed to creating the essence of their wines in the vineyard.  After our last grapes arrived for harvest and things calmed down a bit at the winery, I went with Jaime to Ledya valley, where the vineyards of Amaral are located, to see the source of the grapes that I’ve been working with so closely over the past three months.  It was immediately obvious, even before we arrived at the property, that this is a very special place.  Leyda is becoming ever more popular of a location for growing cool climate grapes, but the Amaral campo is located about 20 more minutes beyond the last vineyard, along a gravel road that gives the impression of leading you to the end of nowhere.  But then you turn the corner and can see over the Maipo river valley, and on a clear day, all the way out to the Pacific Ocean.  And in between are slopes covered in the red and golden hues of grapevines resting in the post-vintage calm of autumn.

The tour of the vineyards, which comprise 600-odd hectares, only a small fraction of which have been planted so far – with sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, syrah, pinot noir, and a bit of pinot gris and gewurztraminer, focused on three soil pits.  The first was comprised of the granite soils that predominately populate the vineyards in Leyda, as the Coastal Range is formed of granite mother rock.  This type of soil has what Jaime considers the 3 key requirements for growing vines (though, clearly, there are other very important components of terroir, especially climate and fitting an appropriate varietal for the conditions) – penetratability (the rock can be relatively easily broken up just with your hand, ensuring that the roots will be able to penetrate the rock and grow deep into the subsoil), lack of fertility – again forcing the roots to grow deep looking for food and water, and also causing just enough stress in the plant to grow quality grapes, and good drainage, which keeps the soil relatively dry, yet again forcing the plant deep into the earth to search for what it needs.

(Granite soils, typical of Leyda and characterizing some, though not the majority, of the blocks at Amaral)

The second soil pit we saw, only a couple hundred meters away from the first, was shockingly different.  This pit, composed of ancient alluvial deposits, characterizes most of Amaral, and, Jaime believes, is what makes the terroir so special.  The close proximity to the Maipo river explains the appearance of these types of soils in a region primarily characterized by granite, and alluvial soils comprise much of the most highly prized vineyards all along the Maipo river, which flows from the Andes, but the alluvial soils of Amaral are quite unique within the cool climate of Leyda.  These soils again posess the 3 keys outlined above, as the round river rocks are so old that they fall apart easily to the touch, and the bright colors suggest a variety of mineral types which, who know, might even have some sort of effect on the final qualities of the wines.

(Alluvial soils typical of Amaral)

Finally, we drove to a third pit that was shockingly white and immediately recognizable as what may well be the most highly sought after soil in the wine world – limestone.  Again possessing the three traits that characterize a good soil, the limestone suggests that this area was covered by the sea at one point in geologic history, as it is a product of deposition of calcium carbonate from marine life.  The limestone is only in a few streaky patches across some of the vineyards, but adds a third, distinct soil type to the already diverse terroir profile of Amaral.

(Limestone at Amaral)

For Jaime, at least, this is where art can come into winemaking.  His goal is to express this incredible place in the wines he makes, and this is, in essence, the challenge of any artist – to take one form, in this case a place, and express it in a new form – for us, the wine.

(Sheep left over from the region’s previously most important industry roam the vineyards, as if as a nod to New Zealand, one of Jaime’s many sources of inspiration)

(Block 901 of Syrah – planted in the style of Hermitage Syrah in France, this particular block planted at the high density of 10,000 plants per hectare)

A lesson in Argentinian viticulture

As the core of Argentina’s wine industry, Mendoza, located at the foothills of the Andes, a 16 hour bus ride west of Buenos Aires, is particularly known for Malbec.  I spent a day visiting vineyards across the different areas of Mendoza with Nicolas Cordoba Micarelli, who is in charge of the vineyards for Kaiken Wines in Mendoza.

I learned a lot visiting a bunch of their different vineyards with Nicolas, travelling all over Mendoza, to vineyards with a range of different climates, altitudes, and soil types.

At a few vineyards we took samples of berries (important to take berries from different rows, different vines, different bunches, different sides of bunches, etc. to be sure to get as much representative a sample as possible.  These samples will be analyzed for the acid and sugar content in order to assess their ripeness and determine when to harvest.

But because we had so much ground to cover in one day, Nicolas assessed several of the vineyards Nicolas just by looking at them, or in some cases by tasting the berries.  He taught me some of the key things to look for at this time of year.  For example, the canopy isn’t overgrown, as that would indicate that the vine is sending its energy to the leaves instead of focusing on ripening the fruit.  Dying leaves toward the bottom of the vine are indicative of water deprivation, but they have to cut off the irrigation as harvest draws near to prevent too much vigor in the canopy, so this is a bit of a delicate balance.

Nicolas also gave me his take on what to look for when tasting grapes in the vineyard.

1.  How easy is it to separate the pulp from the seed? (this gets easier with increasing ripeness, as I was also taught at Pinord Priorat)

2. Spit out the seed and look at the color – it changes from green to brown with ripeness.

3. Taste the flavor of the grape of course – checking the balance between acidity and sugar.

4. Always chew the skin the same number of times, to be able to accurately compare the tannins between different berries.  How hard/green/soft/etc. are they?

5.  Spit out the skin and assess its color as well.

Amazing how much a systematic approach like this helps you get much more out of tasting! It definitely helped to taste differences between berries, though much more experience is required before I’ll be able to know how those differences would translate into a finished wine!!

And finally, a billboard in Mendoza city.  Not sure quite how to feel about this…

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!!!