Written by Rachel Black
Roberto opens a bottle of 1968 Barbaresco that his father and grandfather made together. He pours out some of the transparent, brownish-red liquid and jams his nose deep into the glass. He takes a sip sucking air into his mouth, swishing the wine about. “There is a filo conduttore (a guiding line) between this wine and the most recent vintage that I made. You can just tell that these wines are from Cascina Luisin.”
What Roberto is talking about is taste memory—by tasting and smelling back vintages, a consistency of style is reproduced across generations. This is integral to creating the winery’s distinct identity and expression of terroir. The acts of tasting and smelling are part of the transference of knowledge concerning production, but also more subtle identifiers that take a careful hand to reproduce. In this case, sensory evaluation and memory are social acts. While doing research on wine production, I began to think about the role that wine tasting might play in taste memory and its relationship to apprenticeship and craft. How can wine tasting help capture or articulate the unseen, evanescent nature of taste and smell? I have chosen to focus on cellar practices here, but most wine grower-producers would argue that great wine is made in the vineyard, and much of the same discourse of apprenticeship carries through from the vineyard to the cellar. Winemakers pass down embodied knowledge from generation to generation not only through apprenticeship in the cellar but also through communal tasting sessions (formal and informal) where they reach verbal consensus and negotiate the taste and identity of their family’s wines.
Roberto’s evaluation of what makes his family’s wines recognizable and unique imbeds the notion of terroir into this discourse of identity. The French word terroir has no Italian translation; however, Italian winemakers and wine critics use the French term frequently and it fits the history and current production practices of Italian wines well on many levels. In most Italian wine regions, producers make claims about the long pedigrees of their vines and vineyards. I frequently heard statements such as: “We have always made wine in this way” and “Our vineyards have been here for as many generations as I can remember. People in our village don’t remember a time when there weren’t vines here.” The notion of terroir in this sense has a naturalizing effect—grapes are part of the landscape and local fauna. At the same time, it is apparent that planting a vineyard is a cultural intervention that alters the land. There are academics and people in the wine world that believe that terroir is simply an expression of soil and there are those who also include climate in this definition (Wilson 1998, Fanet 2004). For the purpose of this article, I am using a more culturally focused notion of terroir: an expression of a physical place as well as a place that is constructed and negotiated through living cultural heritage. Anthropologists and social scientists frequently use this cultural definition of terroir that includes an idea of place that is tied to soil and climate as well as local practices and knowledge (Bérard & Marchenay 2007, Trubek 2008).
When Roberto talks about the identity of his wines and the ways in which they are different from his neighbors’, who grow grapes on the same cru (hill), he is talking about the influence of not only soil, but also the practices and methods that he has learned from his father. At the same time, Roberto has evolved family traditions; by attending oenology school in Alba, he has introduced new ideas and technologies into the family’s winemaking and vineyard practices. Roberto and his father discuss and negotiate practices and language both in the tasting room, in the winery and the vineyard.
Part of the function of memory is forgetting (Ricoeur 2004). It is forgetting that facilitates generational shifts, based on the construction of a new collective remembering. This is not to say the past is obliterated through this process—it is merely renegotiated and in this context through the act of the collective tasting of wine. Each new vintage can be seen as part of a dialectic process of memory preservation and construction that is negotiated across generations. For Roberto and his father, an old bottle of wine becomes a symbol of the past and the repository of collective memory (Nora 1989). This concept of change over time takes us back to the idea of taste memory.
Taste memory and its functions in winemaking are not as simple as they might first seem. Once bottled, wine is not static—it continues its evolution in the bottle. Winemaking is merely the process of slowing down fermented grape juice’s journey on its way to becoming vinegar. A bottle of wine is not a perfect time capsule; however, there is often enough that remains of the original characteristics to be able to make links and connections in time to distinct terroirs, production methods or climactic events. The rusty old Barbaresco that I tasted with Roberto was very different from the vibrant 2005 vintage that was poured alongside it. Yet there were also floral notes, acidity and a mouth feel that were consistent across the years.
Roberto explained to me that his family keeps a stock of all of their vintages in the infernöt (reserve wine cellar) under their winery and house. Roberto frequently tastes these old wines with his father, Luigi. While doing so, they discuss the weather during that vintage, and the challenges they encountered in the vineyard and the winery. The dialogue flows between the topic of winemaking and mental tasting notes. Roberto also tastes the current vintage with his father as he is making the wines and as the wines age before bottling. Father and son discuss the taste profiles of these nascent wines with respect to their collective taste memories. The discourse continues to evolve as they integrate production methods into the conversation, working toward a mental catalogue of practices that relate to specific taste and smell traits in Cascina Luisin wines.
After discussing these tastings at length with Roberto, I came to realize that both the act of verbally describing the wines and engaging in sensory evaluation are critical to memorizing the key properties that make these wines distinct from others produced by neighboring wineries, but also what relates them from a sensory perspective from vintage to vintage. Tasting back vintages is an important part of the younger generation’s education and it must be taken into consideration with other areas of apprenticeship in the craft of winemaking and viticulture from the timing and temperature of the fermentation to the amount of time the wine is left to age in large oak barrels. Although techniques and technology may change, there is a guiding line that is identifiable in Cascina Luisin’s wines from year to year.
This is not the only winery that depends on the development of taste memory to insure the quality and distinctive nature of their wines—tasting old vintages is an important part of winemaking apprenticeship in many places. Although the family wine cellar I am using as an example here has a slightly different scope, oenology schools from UC Davis to Bordeaux all have cellars that are used for teaching students about what different and old wines taste and smell like. What is missing in this pedagogical context are the generational conversations that often bridge the temporal and technological divides. Comparing the learning that goes on at oenology and viticulture schools to apprenticeship practices in small family wineries demonstrates how taste memory is connected to familial setting where intergenerational discussion and cumulative knowledge are directly implicated in production. The social nature of knowledge production is critical here (Herzfeld 2004). The family winery is tied to Pierre Nora’s idea of milieu de mémoire, a “real environment[s] of memory” (1998, 7). The environments of memory that Nora speaks of are deeply imbedded in peasant life. In this cultural context, winemaking is a repository of collective memory that implicates the senses in the embodied act of remembering. The modern winemaking school offers lieux de mémoire (places of memory): “a turning point where the consciousness of a break with the past is bound up with the sense that memory has been torn—but torn in such a way as to pose the problem of the embodiment of memory…” (Nora 1998, 7). The embodiment of winemaking memory in the case of the school setting is only explored through the sensory experience of old wine; it is disassociated from the embodied apprenticeship of winemaking and the historical narrative that takes place between generations of winemakers.
Both taste and smell are such fleeting experiences but in the case of winemaking, they must be assigned to memory and attached to physical processes. What can this example of taste memory in winemaking tell us about the role of smell, taste and memory in the production of other artisanal beverages and foodstuffs? Although wine alters as it ages, it can be kept and consumed for many years before becoming undrinkable, but what are the barriers to taste memory with other foods that spoil much more quickly? Wine offers a unique opportunity to investigate the evanescence of taste and smell, as well as the social processes by which memory and knowledge is sustained. It is not just in the verbal and written descriptions of sensory experience that the taste and smell of wine are committed to memory. It is in the physical act of frequent smelling and tasting that the artisan learns how to maintain the filo condutorre.
Bérard, Laurence, and Phillippe Marchenay. 2007. Lieux, Temps et Preuves. Terrain, 24:153-164.
Fanet, Jacques. 2004. Great Wine Terroirs. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Herzfeld, Michael. 2004. The Body Impolitic: Artisans and Artifice in the Global Hierarchy of Value. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Nora, Pierre. 1989. Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire. Representations, 26:7-24.
Ricœur, Paul. 2004. Memory, History, Forgetting. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Trubek, Amy B. 2008. The Taste of Place: A Cultural Journey into Terroir. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Wilson, James E. 1998. Terroir: The Role of Geology, Climate and Culture in Making French Wine. Berkeley: University of California Press.