In our latest MW Perspectives essay, Susan Lin explores whether our increased scientific understanding of viticulture, winemaking, and wine consumption can coexist alongside wine's romance. Read an excerpt below.
Wine, as a product and as a societal and cultural force, comprises both the scientific and the romantic. It is a substance that is defined by science in that it can be broken down into its biological and chemical constituents, quantified, and measured. Wine has been a part of human history and culture since antiquity, taking on an important presence in ritual both sacred and profane. Thus, the identity of wine unequivocally includes romance: there is an association of a positive feeling of excitement, mystery, and magic. Romance is by definition, then, a phenomenon that cannot be explained by science. This dichotomy begs the question of whether science has taken away the romance of wine. With improvements in vineyard and cellar technology, wine can be made based on formulas and tested for conformity in the lab. Further, numerous scientific studies have attempted to determine whether wine is beneficial or detrimental to human health. While wine may no longer be seen as a proverbial elixir of life or simply as a wondrous beverage that brings ineffable enjoyment, there is strong evidence that the romance of wine lives on.
Science in the vineyard has the potential to detract from the romance of wine. Visitors to vineyards expecting to see a bucolic landscape of humans tending vines, horses ploughing, and sheep grazing between rows may instead witness mechanical sprayers, drones, and robots. These machines play an increasingly important role in helping growers assess disease risk, measure moisture levels, and create viticultural strategies. Their presence will likely grow. At Château Coutet, where Vitirover was created and trialed, the yellow inter-row vegetation-managing robot likely doesn’t enhance the romantic impression of wine compared with a vineyard grazed by sheep. The VineScout robot in Portugal was trialed by Symington to measure vine vitals such as water availability, plant vigor, and leaf and canopy temperature. E. & J. Gallo collaborates with NASA to measure canopy size and vigor across vineyard plots via photographs taken by satellites every eight days. This largescale, industrial, scientific approach to viticulture may not seem romantic at all.
Still, there are many vineyards in which more natural methods of viticulture are utilized. This bolsters the romantic image of wine as a product of back-to-nature, traditional craft. Take the photogenic Babydoll sheep managing vegetation in Yealands’ Marlborough vineyards, as well as the winery’s use of seaweed and crushed mussel shells as mulch. Technology and traditional approaches can also exist in tandem, mitigating the effect of science upon the romance: while Pape Clément uses drones to assess mildew risk, it also employs three horses to plough the land. And many consumers remain unaware of what occurs in the vineyard to produce the wine they buy. Thus, even producers who are using technologically advanced viticultural methods can enhance the romantic image of their wines by highlighting other aspects. For example, Symington emphasizes foot-treading in its Port creation process at Quinta de Vesuvio. Therefore, while science may have taken some of the romance from wine in the vineyard, there are many opportunities to fuel it.