The cosmology of wine – from grapes to stars

Photographer Patrick Desgraupes has transformed humdrum scenes of wine's fermentation into otherworldly images – part celestial constellations, part Christmas baubles. As we present a selection of shots taken at some of France's most revered estates, he tells us how he did it

Words by Patrick Desgraupes

Photography by Patrick Desgraupes

(Left to right): grapes fermenting at Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Domaine Guigal and Clos Saint-Patrice

The ‘Grapes to Stars’ project was inspired by the philosophical concept of transformation. Like the alchemists who dreamed of turning lead into gold, I wanted to show the sacred, cosmic and universal aspect of transformation – in this case, grapes turning into wine. I found myself wondering about what happens in the vats, and how I could capture that. I visited two estates in Provence and tried a couple of things, but I wasn’t happy with the results, so I gave up on the idea. Two years later, I tried again, with new techniques, and it worked. In 2017 and 2018, I produced my “Cosmogony of Wine” series which won awards in New York, Los Angeles, London and Paris, and was published in issue 4 of Club Oenologique.

In 2019 I decided that, for my next project, I wanted to pay tribute to the great winemakers. It all started when I met Samuel Montgermont, winemaker of Clos Saint Patrice in Châteauneuf du Pape, where he has created a kind of Burgundian monopole of just 1.8 hectares. His wine is exceptional and atypical of the appellation, and he has a formidable professional network. I wondered if I could perhaps tap into this…

Cosmology of wine
Two of Desgraupes' otherworldly photos of wine fermenting in vats, here at Rhône royalty Domaine Guigal

Samuel put me in touch with one of the people who was responsible for Burgundy becoming a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I sent her some visuals of the project, which she liked, and she gave me the contact details of Aubert de Villaine of Domaine de la Romanée Conti. I sent the same shots to him and asked if I could come and shoot at the winery. I was sure he would say no because, to my knowledge, no authorisation has ever been issued from DRC to come and photograph the estate – especially not in the cellar during harvest. To my astonishment, the very next day I received an email from him accepting my request, on two conditions: that I didn’t disturb the smooth running of the cellar; and that I didn’t stay too long. Of course, I accepted.

It was quite intimidating for me to visit DRC, which is less a wine and more a myth… Added to that, I knew that I had very little time (I visited twice, each time for about two hours) – though I suspect things were more tense for the young cellar master, who was working just his first or second harvest. It was all rather complicated and stressful…

I had my son by my side to assist me because we needed to work very fast. I wasn’t 100% happy with the first shoot, so the day before the second shoot, I connected – as I always do – with the “divine forces”, to inspire me and guide me. Luckily, it worked.

Le Clos Saint Patrice
At Châteauneuf-du-Pape's Clos Saint Patrice. The photo on the right allows you to see what you cannot see with the naked eye, says Desgraupes. "I use a powerful flash at a short distance from the the wine, in "freeze" mode, which allows me to freeze a movement to approximately 1/10,000th of a second. If the movement is not frozen enough, I use a second flash or a Magnum light shaper to further reduce the duration of the flash."

At the rest of the domaines, I felt right at home, and was able to share some extraordinary moments in the cellars. What was both surprising and fascinating to me was that all these great winemakers said the same thing. They are all working on small plots of about two hectares, but they all advocate a hands-off approach and claim that they don’t actually do anything, which makes me laugh. “We are nothing”; “Only nature decides”; “We must remain modest”; “It takes a lifetime to understand wine”; “Wine is greater than Man”. They are all as demanding as they are perfectionists.

I suppose I share some of those qualities. I am often asked how these photos are made. It’s not easy, and to an extent – like a winemaker – I prefer to keep my techniques secret. It’s also pretty technical, so I’m not sure how interesting it is. But basically, it’s all about the light, and balancing a host of different variables: a soft light (diffused with a soft box), or a direct hard light, positioned in the direction of the wine. The light can be positioned at 45°, or from above, at 90° – each will yield different results. And sometimes I do a “light painting” whereby I capture the pose for about 8 seconds in total darkness, and  illuminate the subject by moving my LED lamp. The camera sensor will not record my movement, just the end result. This gives a very soft light, which reveals the textures.

I often have to go back to a winery several times before I “design” a light that allows textures to be revealed. Sometimes I use LEDs with a tripod, for light “painting”, but most of the time I use flashes with a different light shaper, which ensures different results. Sometimes I engage a very short flash duration to “freeze” the movement. I don’t use the same lights or light modifiers as I would to photograph a piece of jewellery, a car or food. It’s the same for portraiture; every artist has a personal touch, their own approach. It’s studio work, like a still life, but light is at the heart of it all – it’s the thing that turns something ordinary into something extraordinary.

Domaine Anselme Selosse
Domaine de la Romanée Conti (left) and Champagne Selosse, as never seen before. "I like to use soft boxes with a 1m diameter, which gives a soft light and reveals the textures well," says Desgraupes. "That was the case for DRC, where there is a slightly cold white balance and very pastel tones. That's how I dreamed of this image. The wines here are very delicate, with incredible finesse, and this delicacy had to be felt in the photo. To capture the fine bubbles of Selosse, I used two flashes, each equipped with a soft box positioned as close as possible to the surface in order to ensure the shortest possible flash duration."

Aside from the work, I loved meeting the winemakers. I had an amazing evening with Anselme Selosse. It was during the first days of harvest, and we shared the meal that his wife had prepared, with his children and the whole team of pickers, as a family. Selosse is a courteous, passionate, cultured man, and something of a free thinker. One moment we were talking about Champagne, the next we were talking about the great philosophers of ancient Greece.

Marcel Guigal is an adorable man with a mischievous smile, and curious about everything. He told us many anecdotes about the people he had met – French and foreign politicians, people who were ready to do anything in the 1980s and 90s to acquire a case of his La Landonne or La Mouline Côte Rôties.

I remember with particular emotion my evening in Puligny Montrachet with Olivier Leflaive during the Bacchanalian La Paulée. There must have been about 50 people, all seated next to each other on long tables. I must have tasted 15 to 18 wines over the course of the evening – Meursault, Puligny Montrachet, Pommard, Aloxe Corton, Beaune… amazing. Then Olivier Leflaive drew back the curtain behind him to reveal a drummer and a guitarist, before taking hold of his Fender bass and striking up rock classics from the 1960s and’ 70s. The screams started ringing out behind me and before I knew it, everyone was dancing.

It was a more modest scene at Jean Yves Bizot in Vosne Romanée, I was astonished at how small the cellar was there – about 50m2, no more than a large garage. A few vats, no tools, no pump, just his assistant pressing the grapes with his feet. It was a real journey back through time. Bizot hadn’t allowed any photographer to enter the cellar before, and I can still taste his incredibly pure and fine Vosne Romanée Les Jachées, sampled from the truncated conical vats.

Domaine Guigal-La Turque
Back at Domaine Guigal. The shot on the left captures décuvage – the emptying of the tank – where the juice is transferred to a transitional tank with much lower pressure. The operation is slow, so as not to stress or oxidize the wine, and micro particles as well as fine foam began to appear as the tank empties. "They seem to dance, like a slow-motion ballet," says Desgraupes. "It was mesmerising. I was precariously balanced on top of the tank, and I used two flashes – one for the highlights and one for the slightly underexposed lowlights."

I took all these photos between early September and late October, at different periods of the vintage. My son helped me with the lightings, sometimes my wife too. I had to work quickly and without disturbing the winemakers; you have to understand that they are working too. Like them, my work was done “in situ”, sometimes under complicated conditions, with alcohol vapours that can render you unconscious at any moment. I had to hold my breath quite frequently, and sometimes I would have to contort myself into tight places, wedged between the top of a tank and the slope of the roof.

When it comes to the colours, I ask the winegrowers questions about what they are doing before deciding upon my treatment. I try to understand their approach. Though my visits to DRC were short, with other producers, I was talking to them every day for two weeks to understand what to expect and when to shoot. At Le Clos Saint Patrice, I was on the phone with the cellarmaster every day for two or three weeks, and took pictures for four or five days, depending on what I saw.

And it’s different every time. I would be unable to remake any of these photos the same way. When a photo is really good, it comes from divine intervention. It’s a balance between so many different elements, parameters that I can’t control. It’s a bit like what these winemakers told me – that when an extraordinary vintage has been made, they are ecstatic, and tell themselves that maybe they’ll never be able to do so well again. “Who knows?” they say. “That’s why we have to be modest.”