Features 7 February 2020

Cosmogony of wine

These extraordinary photographs show a natural process that human beings first began to understand thousands of years ago: the transformation of grape sugars into alcohol by the action of yeast

Words by Adam Lechmere

Photography by Patrick Desgraupes

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They could be Christmas decorations, ready for the tree. In fact, these entrancing pictures show a purely scientific process – namely vats of grapes at different stages of fermentation, at Château Virant in Provence.

Some of the vats contain white grapes, like the Rolle (left), just beginning to ferment, and the Ugni Blanc (below right), which is undergoing the operation known as cold stabilisation. Of the reds, the Syrah in the main picture (above middle) is at a similar stage, while the shimmering pink bauble (above right) is Grenache destined for rosé, fermenting at full pace. The whirlpool created by pigéage (below left) shows the breaking up of the cap of skins and stalks that rises to the top of the vat.

During fermentation, the grapes split and churn and tumble in the vat. Skins rise to the surface, appear to take on bizarre colours and create floating masses reminiscent of continents. A miasma of gases swirls over the surface: photographer Patrick Desgraupes, who took these unearthly images, is perfectly aware of the danger of leaning into a cloud of carbon dioxide. Depending on the state of the fermentation, he can allow himself no more than a couple of seconds over the vat, capturing the images with blink-of-an-eye shutter speeds of 1/20,000 of a second. At other times – when space permits a tripod or gantry – he will produce second-long exposures.

Often he will lean right into the tank, holding his breath as he takes his shots. What strikes him most forcefully is that fermentation is a dynamic, living process. It produces heat and carbon dioxide, and it’s noisy. ‘All sorts of sounds come out – squeaks and whistles, and sometimes a cracking sound,’ he says. The photographs are all taken without natural light. ‘I wanted to reveal the magic of a process that we never see, a transformation that takes place in total darkness.’

Cosmogony of Wine is an ongoing project shot at wineries all over France. Desgraupes uses a 36.3-megapixel Nikon D800E, with a 50mm Sigma Arts wide-angle lens and Profoto studio lighting.

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