Faith versus fact: how we think about wine


Here are ten fun facts about wine!

  1. Chablis is 100% Chardonnay
  2. Most wine is not suitable for vegans
  3. There are no great wines, only great bottles
  4. Sulphur is an essential wine preservative
  5. Sulphur is a harmful addition that spoils wine
  6. Vines transmit flavours from stones via their roots into grapes and then wine
  7. Wine prevents heart disease
  8. Wine causes cancer
  9. During Eucharist, red wine becomes the blood of Jesus Christ
  10. As an intoxicant, all wine is a defilement of Satan

Oh dear. Perhaps they weren’t so fun by the end, but it's undeniable that each one is held as absolute fact by some people, despite the fact that several are blatantly contradictory. Several are also blatantly insane, although the sensitive nature of faith-based beliefs means that I would never specify which. Oh alright then, just one. Prepare to have your world turned upside down: not every Chablis is 100% Chardonnay.

The horror. But a humorous wine column is hardly the right platform to wilfully offend people – that’s what social media is for. Even so, whatever you choose to believe, the apparent conflict between faith-based conviction and scientifically proven fact raises an intriguing question about how we think about wine.

Science can be credited with providing most of the major improvements to wine in recent history. In the nineteenth century, Louis Pasteur conceived that alcoholic fermentation must have a living agent behind it, and the invention of the microscope later helped in the discovery of the yeast cell, allowing it to be isolated and cultured.

More recently, vineyard innovations such as regulated deficit irrigation and canopy management employ scientific theory in an ultimate quest for riper, healthier grapes. In the winery, technological developments such as optical sorting tables, stainless-steel tanks and temperature control have all resulted in more stable, cleaner, fresher wine from all around the world.

But science can’t explain everything, as evidenced by the many faith-based beliefs that exist alongside the scientific ones.

Take fact number six, that wine contains flavours that are literally transferred from the soil in which the vines were grown. This is routinely applied to the ‘oyster-shell’ flavour of Chablis (of the non-blush variety), whose Kimmeridgian soils are formed from marine fossils.

The Oxford Companion to Wine tells us that ‘geologists and soil scientists are clear that there can be no direct connection between the flavour of a wine and the geological minerals in the rocks that underlie a vineyard or the mineral elements in the soil that are nutrients for the vine’.

Yet only last month, Andrew Jefford reported on a tasting in which ‘the schist wines [...] conveyed notes suggestive of crushed stone and pounded rock more effectively, whereas the ‘minerality’ of the limestone wines was a finer, sweeter, more powdery and sometimes more fugitive affair’.

Jefford might not be claiming that soil compounds literally transfer their flavours into wine, but he clearly argues the case that wines from different soil types have different flavours – a phenomenon which every wine lover is familiar with (see, for example, last week's  Alsace's new group makes a point).

When science cannot sufficiently explain something, such as exactly how soil affects flavour, a different sort of belief can take its place. Thus plenty of people still think that vine roots take flavour out of rocks and transport them into their grapes – in his book Wine, Moon and Stars, Languedoc producer Gérard Bertrand says ‘sucking on pieces of rock reveals the taste of the terroir’ (p 87).

Scientists might scoff at such beliefs, but they remain perennially attractive because they offer something that scientific explanation cannot: a sense of mystical intrigue. These are idealistic instincts, based on emotions and imagination rather than methodologies and rigour.

Enter biodynamics, which involves practices related to homeopathy and astrology that repeatedly fail to prove their efficacy – yet hundreds of winemakers around the world adhere to them, including many of the most revered and prestigious estates.

Famous biodynamic wine brands. Fact.

They may not be able to explain it, but advocates believe that biodynamics make a palpable difference to the quality of their wine, and thousands of wine drinkers agree with them.

If you were to deny all the non-scientific elements of wine, you’d be left with something entirely rational but perhaps rather prosaic. Yet on the other hand, great beauty can be found in science, not to mention the understanding and progress that it facilitates. Tim Minchin put it this way in Storm:

Isn't this enough?
Just this world?
Just this beautiful, complex, wonderfully unfathomable, natural world?
How does it so fail to hold our attention that we have to diminish it with the invention of cheap, man-made myths and monsters?

He may not have been talking about wine, although he had been drinking quite a bit of it. Perhaps faith and fact are fundamentally incompatible, yet the infinite wonder of the wine world depends on both.