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Looking at wine through the El Bulli lens

Ferran Centelles explains the Sapiens approach to wine, a scientific and forensic evaluation that underpins a series of new books in the El Bulli family – and has led to some interesting discoveries about the drink along the way

Words by Ferran Centelles

Photography by Roger Fawcett-Tang

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Although it might not have been obvious to outsiders at the time, a drive to better understand creativity and innovation was in fact one of the main reasons that led Ferran Adrià to close El Bulli restaurant. After months of meditation and consideration, Ferran told us that he had found the common trait in all those considered as innovators in their field: passion. But although it is the driving force, passion is not enough, and innovators are nothing without a sound knowledge base.

The more knowledge one has of a discipline, the more creative one can be, whether we’re talking about the arts, science, engineering or, of course, cooking. This idea was the genesis of the El Bulli Foundation and Bullipedia, the encyclopedic project that aims to capture the knowledge necessary for any gastronomic restaurant – and, hopefully, to pique the interest of more general enthusiasts along the way. Wine obviously plays a major role in restaurants, so Ferran called upon me to work on a series of books that would help us understand the vinous world more fully.

The Sapiens Method, another of the El Bulli Foundation’s projects, was applied to create a compendium of books that we have called Wine Sapiens. In short, this method allows us to analyse wine from a lexical perspective – to classify and categorise it taxonomically and to identify some historical milestones. Above all, we aim to understand its role in nature, society and, ultimately, within the restaurant.

The method also requires bringing together professionals from different fields of knowledge, such as scientists, humanists, journalists, oenologists, sommeliers, psychologists and artists, to philosophise on different issues from their perspectives. This holistic view is essential. And although science is the backbone, debate and opposition are necessary to avoid dogmatism and to keep an open mind. Each time a question is explored, our aim is to offer an explanation that encompasses these perspectives, so that readers can understand all points of view without us forcing a single answer upon them.

Ultimately, our goal with Wine Sapiens is to push the boundaries of wine knowledge. As a result, we have written more than 5,500 pages in eight volumes that aim to help professionals and amateurs understand – and, consequently, boost their creativity. I am very proud that the world’s most admired chef has championed this work. To offer a glimpse into what it’s all about, here we present five questions that have been put under the Wine Sapiens microscope.

Why do we drink wine?

One of the most shocking reflections of Wine Sapiens was considering wine not as a beverage but as an ‘elaborated product’; however, this notion requires an understanding of the concept of utility. When a chef uses wine for cooking or when a spirits company distils it to obtain another product, we see examples of wine being something other than a beverage. Its customary use in restaurants is as a beverage, of course; but to be precise, wine is an elaborated product with a variety of uses.

An interesting question arose from the above. We are pretty sure that enthusiasts don’t drink wine for feeding purposes; although wine is legally a food, it is neither the healthiest nor the most nutritious option. While in previous centuries there are records of wine being consumed as a food – up to 3 litres per day – this is not the situation in recent times.

The main reason for drinking wine is for pleasure. Wine is probably the most hedonistic liquid that exists

Wine can feed the soul of the drinker, though, and we believe that in this statement lies the solution: the main reason for drinking wine is for pleasure. Wine, in fact, is probably the most hedonistic liquid that exists for human beings.

First, wine is designed to be shared, since the standard unit is 75cl, a volume that is not an individual measure. Second, it is easy and important to know where the raw material comes from, which helps to create an emotional connection with a specific terroir in a very direct way. Moreover, its consumption is usually anticipated, creating expectations and even some suspense – for example, when we say, ‘I am going to keep this wine for a special occasion.’ All these factors – beyond its taste or the psychoactive effect of alcohol – make wine the drink with the greatest hedonistic potential on the planet.

Is wine alive?

Wine critics and sommeliers often refer to wine with phrases such as ‘I am going to open the wine now so that it can breathe’, ‘It is a wine designed to have a long life’ or ‘I uncorked that wine from 1978, and unfortunately it was quite dead.’ These expressions may give the idea that wine is a living thing. However, from the point of view of biological science, being alive implies fulfilling a list of requirements, such as carrying out a metabolic activity, growing or increasing in size, reproducing, responding to stimuli or evolving, to name a few. The more of these that are fulfilled, the better an element fits into what is considered a living being. A wine does not feed on hamburgers. Neither do 75cl bottles grow into magnums. (I wish!) A white wine does not marry a red wine and, in time, produce a tiny and precious rosé. Yeasts, bacteria or even the grapes and grapevines themselves are another matter, since they are living organisms, but wine, per se, is not a living thing.

Knowing all this, sommeliers should not stop talking about wine as if it were a living element because we apply metaphorical language, which is surely the most emotional and persuasive. It facilitates the connection and understanding between a drinker and their drink. To say that ‘this wine has a lot of life’ offers a clear image that this wine has flavour and youth in a way that is as clear and evident as few others.

Wine Sapiens takes a scientific look at wine

What was the first wine list like?

La Grande Taverne de Londres, located at 26 Rue de Richelieu in Paris, is considered the first gastronomic restaurant in history. It opened as early as 1782, seven years before the French Revolution. At that time, large feasts and the most exquisite menus were unveiled in the private domain of aristocratic palaces and could only be enjoyed by strict prior invitation. There were taverns and other establishments, but with no grand intentions, just a simple food service.

Antoine Beauvilliers, the restaurateur behind La Grande Taverne de Londres, published the most important gastronomic work of the 19th century, L’Art du Cuisinier, in 1814. In this book, we find what could be considered one of the first wine lists, because it was an open selection from which customers could choose. The following were some of the names on the list: ‘Mission, Margau, Mouton-Canon, Lafite-du-Château, Côte-Rotie, Ermitage, Provence, Roussillon, Languedoc, Moselle, Rhin, Tokai, Malvoisi de Chypre, Syracuse, Madère, Malaga, Porto, Alicante, Rota, Xèrés, Canaries, Benicarlo, Rome, Roscane, Florence’ [sic], among others.

Without a doubt, we owe it to Beauvilliers to have built the first great wine cellar in the history of gastronomic restaurants.

Why should sommeliers opt for the emotional?

Let’s face it, many sommeliers use technical language when recommending wines. Expressions such as ‘a balanced wine’, ‘a wine with a floral character’ or ‘a wine with a lot of tannin that needs time in bottle’ are either intimidating or incomprehensible to most people. Rhetoric and effective communication in a restaurant are topics that we also deal with in Wine Sapiens, and we had the opportunity to carry out a scientific study in collaboration with Dom Pérignon and neuroscientist Dr Jesús Pujol at Hospital del Mar in Barcelona. We were able to see in real time what was happening inside the brains of volunteers when we presented a bottle of Dom Pérignon at their table, using different language on each occasion.

An emotional presentation of the wine provoked more intense neuronal activity

The results were as surprising as they were revealing. A conventional presentation – with technical information about the wine and an explanation of the grape varieties, the characteristics of the vintage and a neutral tasting note – produced fairly neutral neuronal activity in return. On the other hand, an emotional presentation explaining why we were recommending the wine and the high score it had obtained from the critics provoked more intense neuronal activity. In addition, certain parts of the brain – such as the amygdala and the hippocampus, areas that activate emotions, memory and, ultimately, pleasure – showed intense activity with the latter presentation, which was not the case when using conventional communication.

Can wine be a work of art?

One of the great advantages of the Sapiens Method is having the shared knowledge of humanists and art specialists. This allows us to reflect on what factors make a wine close to a work of art – if any. Initially, we found that there was one fact that distanced wine from art: conditioning factors. To put it succinctly, artists are free to use whatever format or material they want in order to create their work. But wine has only one defining element, and that is that it is made from grapes.

However, upon further analysis and to our surprise, we found that there were indeed points of connection between art and wine. For example, a wine has the capacity to convey a message. When a producer aims to move their customers emotionally or to leave their personal stamp on their wine, they are making wine with an artistic vision – whether that is by showing a terroir, letting nature express itself as freely as possible, or even adapting and experimenting with winemaking techniques according to the characteristics of a particular vintage. All this is exploration and adaptation to new paths, which is a defining facet of art.

Obviously, not every wine is a work of art, just as not every drawing is worthy of being exhibited in the Museo del Prado, but if we accept this reasoning, there is no doubt that some bottles of wine are true works of art.