An oenologist with his ear to the ground…
An oenologist – the word comes from Greek and means ‘one who possesses the science of wine’ – is responsible for ensuring that the wine produced is of good quality.
At this period of harvesting and winemaking, everything is playing out now in the cellar… the contribution of an oenologist is important and many winegrowers in Rasteau are well aware of that. Interview with Nicolas CONSTANTIN, Oenologist-consultant, Deputy Director of the Diœnos Rhône Laboratory in Orange and President of the French Union of Oenologists for the Rhône Valley-Provence-Corsica region.
A.O.C Rasteau : How would you explain your profession to a novice with an interest in wine ?
Nicolas C. : “The oenologist is an orchestra conductor who has to compose with the different talents (winegrowers, vineyard, terroir, cellar, etc.) to make a wine which will bring pleasure and emotion to consumers”.
A.O.C Rasteau : What made you decide to become an Oenologist ?
Nicolas C. : “I come from Vaison la Romaine and a family of farmers and winegrowers. I always wanted to work in the world of wine, even as a young boy. The different people I met in school and during trainee placements and visits also pushed me towards the profession of oenologist.
It is the ultimate passion-profession! I take real pleasure in my work every day, and I would advise only those who are really interested in wine, and in the people who make it, to consider doing this job!“
A.O.C Rasteau : Can you tell us about your training background ?
Nicolas C. : “I have always worked as an oenologist-consultant.
It was after my military service that I started working at the Inter-Rhône Laboratory in Rasteau in September 1989. It then relocated to Orange in 1998 and I followed. Today it has become the Dioenos Rhône Laboratory, and I am still there. In the beginning, I followed a technical course (qualifying as an agricultural technician and then as an advanced agricultural technician), and after that I studied oenology at the Faculty of Pharmacy in Montpellier and obtained my National Diploma of Oenology.“.
A.O.C Rasteau : According to the origins of the word, an oenologist is someone who possesses the science of wine… Could we also say that an oenologist is a scientist with a good palate ?
Nicolas C. : “Yes, it’s true that to be an oenologist you definitely need to have scientific and technical knowledge and also a certain talent for wine tasting. When I taste a wine in the cellar, there is a link between what I detect when tasting and some of the analytical elements that we will find. However, the perceptions that we have are not always quantifiable by the oenological analysis, and that’s where our palate, our experience, and our ability to analyse and interpret make the difference.
To come back to the analytical criteria, there are a great many to take into consideration. We know that the everyday analyses depend on standard parameters such as the degree of alcohol, the total acidity and the pH, the volatile acidity, the sugars, etc.
Today, new techniques used in the laboratories make it possible to determine other parameters which could not be measured a few years ago, for example: the different acids in the musts and the wines (tartaric, malic, lactic), the available nitrogen, the potassium, the acetaldehyde, the Delta C13 (hydric stress marker), not to mention the microbiological analyses that allow us to identify the different micro-organisms.
Science and the tools that we have today allow us to establish much more precise diagnoses. But it is often the palate that allows us to decide in the end. To sum up, I would say that the profession of oenologist has evolved with the scientific and analytical aspect but especially and always with the tasting“.
AOC Rasteau : Is it also a multi-functional job ?
Nicolas C. : “Yes, you do need to have several strings to your bow: be scientific, thorough, persuasive, and know how to adapt to different personalities. It all very much depends on the winegrower you are working with. Some pretty much give you ‘free rein’ and the decisions are up to you. But others may give you a smaller scope of action, and just want an opinion, and a discussion about the wine.
When you are in this type of support role, you have to be capable of listening to everyone’s needs and wishes so that you can meet their expectations while offering suggestions if you think that improvements can be made.“.
AOC Rasteau : What do you like the most about your job ?
Nicolas C. : “Wine and its diversity: the People, the terroirs, the varietals, the techniques… You must constantly be the link with History, innovation and scientific progress”.
A.O.C Rasteau : In your opinion what are the qualities required to be an oenologist ?
Nicolas C. : “You need to be curious, thorough, a good listener and to like conversing”.
A.O.C Rasteau : And what do you think we can expect from the 2018 vintage in Rasteau ?
Nicolas C. : “With the tricky weather conditions, it has been a testing year for the winegrowers (rainy in spring then very hot and dry throughout the summer and during the harvests), complex in terms of the winemaking process, but great quality in terms of the results that will be obtained”.
A.O.C Rasteau : And finally, we are curious to know what you think of the appellation
Nicolas C. : “Rasteau is a cradle of our Grenache varietal, and on this terroir it is capable of producing top quality wines !”
A.O.C Rasteau : In your opinion, what are the ingredients needed to make a good wine ?
Nicolas C. : “You need good grapes, good management and good technical knowledge”.
A.O.C Rasteau : And what are the ingredients needed to make a GREAT WINE ?
Nicolas C. : “That’s already a bit more complicated: I would say that it’s a question of alchemy. I think there needs to be a notion of terroir in the noble sense of the term: in other words a specific area of land, a varietal, a working method and a winegrower. Even more so since, today, people are making good wine all over the world (where vines can grow in any case!).
But to make a Great Wine, I would say that the key is the winegrower, his knowledge and understanding of the terroir and of the vintage, but also (because it is crucial to know how to take the right decisions), his technical knowledge and mastery.
There is a less tangible element to take into account, but which is equally important, and this is that a Great Wine is always linked to an emotion, something that comes about through the wine. You taste it and you say “That is very good! That is exceptional!”
Finally, I would say that it is also in a specific context that we can truly appreciate a Great Wine, during a tasting with friends, during a meal, in a pleasant setting, with the desire to share… There is a touch of magic, something extra. That’s not very scientific, I admit, but it does play a part!
In that case, even the oenologist can completely leave aside the technical aspects, they no longer count“.
Thank you Nicolas for taking the time to talk to us and for, perhaps, having attracted some new recruits towards your profession !