Le Vin et Le Vignoble: An Integrative Approach to Understanding Taste in Wine

Wine is an ancient alcoholic beverage with profound historical origins. The earliest evidence of winemaking dates back to 4,100 BCE. Winemaking is a trade deeply rooted in the chemical and natural sciences, involving factors like soil quality, geography and climate, which heavily influence production. In addition to the natural sciences, what are the economic, political, and social factors at play in the conception of wine and its terroir?

April 06, 2021
By Megan Mallen - Flickr: Côte de Beaune, Burgundy
Vineyards in the Côte de Beaune, Burgundy (Wikimedia Commons)

From 2016 to 2018, FBF collaborators Marion Fourcade (Professor of Sociology and Director of the Social Science Matrix at UC Berkeley), Régis Gougeon (Professor at the University of Burgundy’s Institut Universitaire de la Vigne et du Vin), and wine historian Olivier Jacquet took this holistic approach to understanding the taste of wine.

The team's initial interest in unifying multiple perspectives on winemaking began with an interest in understanding the classification systems, which regulate and control wine quality, production and sales within different regions of the world. At the same time, they wanted to interpret the subjective perceptions that affect the taste of wine, based on factors such as chemistry, geography, economy, and culture. “We started a collaboration thinking about the connection between the objective classification system and subjective tastes,” said Fourcade.

Gougeon and Jacquet, historians of the vine and wine (historiens de la vigne et du vin), studied the structure of Burgundian wine with France’s wine certification, Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée (AOC). The AOC is considered one of the regulated, objective systems in the study, which indicates that the terroir is one of the key identifiers of a wine’s DNA or qualities. Yet terroir is also a factor that impacts the subjective taste of wine based on chemistry and soil quality.

In May 2017, the collaborators convened an interdisciplinary workshop at UC Berkeley on the contrasting systems of wine-making practices and science. “We wanted to find an integrated view about wine science and winemaking practices,” explained Gougeon, “to understand wine and wine science both from an experimental point of view--chemistry in particular--and the humanities and social sciences point of view.” 

FBF collaborators Marion Fourcade, Olivier Jacquet and Regis Gougeon
Clockwise from top: Régis Gougeon, FBF undergraduate research apprentice Daylin Ramirez, Marion Fourcade, and Olivier Jacquet

A key outcome of the FBF project was the fruitful connections it fostered with early-career scholars. Alexander Barnard--then a Berkeley PhD candidate, now assistant professor of Sociology at New York University--is one of the many graduate students who gained firsthand experience in researching the diverse factors, from both the natural and social sciences, which come into play with wine-making. Following a trip to the Burgundy in 2018, where he conducted extended visits to several vineyards, Barnard has begun to incorporate some of his findings on the reports filed by students of the Diplôme National d'Oenologie (National Diploma of Oenology) on particular processes, interventions, and outcomes in oenological knowledge. The research team hopes to collaborate with Barnard on a future article.

Olivier Jacquet is also currently working on a thesis on the framework of approaches to quality of wine within historical constructs in the 19th century, which he hopes to publish within the next few years. “My research has been directly inspired by UC Berkeley and my collaboration with Marion and Régis,” he said.

With former Berkeley graduate student Rebecca Elliot (now Assistant Professor of Sociology at the London School of Economics), Fourcade and Jacquet are continuing their collaboration on the comparative history on wine classifications in Burgundy and Napa, to analyze how they were stabilized through official channels and how they continue to shape the subjective “taste” of wine.

The FBF grant not only opened the door for French and UC Berkeley scholars to work together, but also allowed for collaboration with specialists in chemistry and geomorphology from UC Davis and professionals from the wine industry.

The team believes it is the uniqueness of this research concept that has been particularly impactful -- an integration not just of countries, but of disciplines, which allowed for a new understanding of the scientific and historical influences within and around wine and winemaking.