Science is a scary word to those of us who know little about it. There were two ways to learn a concept, according to the U.S. Air Force: Go to a technical school, or “On the Job Training.” As a wine writer, I applied the OJT method to learn what little I know about science, more specifically, the science of wine.
So, it was with a combination of approach (wine) and avoidance (science) that I began reading Jaime Goode’s revised, “The Science of Wine.” It didn’t take long, though, before I was deeply involved and learning something new. Yes, old dogs and new tricks and all that…. But this is not a wine book as much as it is a text about science as applied to grape growing, winemaking and wine tasting.
Goode is a Brit who was writing about science until he got side-tracked and took up wine writing. His carry-over use of scientific jargon and lengthy scientific explanations throughout “The Science of Wine” may be off-putting to some readers, but hang in there, the annoyances are offset by the thoroughness and depth of this book.
As you dive deeper into “Science,” it becomes clear that there is something for just about every wine drinker, aided by an extensive Glossary. In Section 1, “In the Vineyard,” the author breaks down the science of soils and grapes into nine chapters, including The Biology of the Grapevine, Precision Viticulture and such hot-button topics as Biodynamics and Phylloxera. Goode also explains lutte raisonee, a new French viticultural approach, which means “the reasoned struggle.” According to Goode, lutte raisonee is a third form of vineyard management between biodynamics and the more conventional “chemical-based” agriculture. Lutte raisonee is based on the more familiar approach, at least in this country, known as Integrated Pest Management.
In Section 2, Goode moves the science from the vineyard to “In the Winery,” addressing such topics as Oxygen Management, Sulfur Dioxide, Brettanomyces--all possible sleep-inducing subjects, unless you are a winemaker or hoping to become one. Brettanomyces, or “brett,” was THE popular buzz word a few years ago. Goode devotes eight pages to the wine fault, calling it fascinating, “partly because it (brett) is one of those ‘faults’ that in some contexts can be regarded as positive.” The good-fault / bad-fault brett paradigm is more familiarly associated with Pinot Noir, as in “A little brett adds complexity to the wine.” But Goode cites a case study focusing on the flavor profile of Chateau de Beaucastel, the noted Chateauneuf-du-Pape wine with a higher than average Mourvedre content. The question, posed by Goode and others: Is Beaucastel infected by excessive brett, is it the terroir, or could it be the high percentage of Mourvedre?
Goode’s take on “Sulfur Dioxide,” a subject he devotes five pages to in Chapter 14, is that, with the exception of winemakers, other wine-interested folks (including writers and consumers), don’t have a clue. “I suspect that most don’t have a clear understanding of the issues involved (with sulfur dioxide).” He then provides a concise primer on such related subjects as free and bound forms of sulfur dioxide and the importance of pH, a term I’ve had explained to me a couple of dozen times but still don’t understand. “For the benefit of those who have long forgotten their school lessons [if you even had them], pH is a measure of how acidic or alkaline a solution is.” Right.
Readers who think of themselves as being more interested in how a wine smells and tastes than in wine chemistry will find Section 3, “Our Interaction with Wine,” the most satisfying part of this book. Central to Goode’s theme is a long section on “Taste and Smell” that examines the anatomy of non-tasters, medium tasters and super-tasters. Goode cites numerous studies on the subject, including one by U.S. Master of Wine Tim Hanni that addresses the individual the differences in taste perception while delving into the controversy in science circles swirling around hyper-tasters and non-tasters. For the curious, Goode provides a simple test to determine if you are a super-taster.
Closing out this chapter, which may require some people (like me) to re-read it a few times, Goode offers a short sidebar on “smell blindness” or anosmia. The example he uses is the surprising fact that one-fifth of people tested cannot detect rotundone, a wine flavor compound that is responsible for the “black pepper” aroma in some red wines such as Syrah/Shiraz. Another of Goode’s intriguing sidebars is “The Pepsi Challenge,” an update, with a wine connection, to the famous blind test pitting Pepsi against Coke that caught the public’s interest in the 1970s and early 1980S.
Chapters 20-24 explain more scientific/sensory “perceptual events,” as Goode labels them. Included are “Wine and the Brain,” “Saliva, tannin and mouth feel,” “Synesthesia, language and wine” (the stimulation of one sense by another; think of the interaction of smell and taste), “Wine flavor chemistry” and “Wine and Health.” Due to the limits of space, I’ve skipped over these chapters, but I recommend a thorough read with a glass of wine in hand; however, unless your geek level is very high, take these five chapters one at a time.
Having the ability and skill to be able to boil down technical and scientific concepts to everyday language is rare among science (and wine) writers. Goode doesn’t hit the mark all the time in “The Science of Wine,” but he does have a knack for blending science with common sense that makes for entertaining reading.
The Science of Wine: From Vine to Glass,” second edition, Jamie Goode, University of California Press, hardcover, 216 pages, $39.95, ISBN: 9780520276895.
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WRO Columnist Emeritus Gerald Boyd contributes book reviews to this space on a regular basis from his so-called “retirement.”