In our series of interviews with expatriates who live in Vaud, here is an interview with George Unc, a masters student at the Ecole du Vin (wine school) in Changins near Nyon. Read on to find out his thoughts on what makes a good wine and his favourite Swiss wine producers, as well as his tips for travelling around the country as a student and the places he likes to visit in Switzerland.
Interview by Rachel Beacher. Rachel is a British journalist and lives in Lausanne.
Can science help to create the perfect wine?
George Unc thinks so. The Romanian-Canadian-American student is a masters student in winemaking, based at Changins. He came to Nyon after working for a series of New World vineyards and wineries, in the USA and Australia. He is now nearly halfway through an 18-month Master of Life Science, Specialisation in Viticulture and Enology.
Photo above – George Unc with a glass of Swiss Chasselas wine, down by the lakeside in Nyon
Living in Nyon asked him, is wine-making an art or a science?
“In my mind, winemaking is the perfect balance of science, anecdotal experience and quite a bit of intuition. At its core, winemaking is an agricultural pursuit, involving the farming of the grape crop and then the transformation of the grape into delicious wine through the help of microorganisms. Simple. To make wine is not difficult, to make quality wine that will be appreciated for many years is not as simple.
“Science can help with this. It is a useful tool that can assist by providing a framework for winemakers to understand their viticulture and winemaking processes. We now know a lot about terroir – soil, climate, plant, other environmental interactions – of the grape, plant biology, chemical and biochemical processes in the fermentation and ageing of wine, and much more. All thanks to science. This can provide a peace of mind that one is making the “right” choices, validated by experimentation and research.
“But, science can only go so far. It would be foolish to take such a reductionist approach to wine because wine is such a complex, delicate system where every part forms a harmony. Here is where intuition and anecdotal evidence takes over. A deep understanding of your vineyard, winery and your environment are integral. Where you need time to build an intimate relationship with your craft in your specific environment. These nuances are where the best wine is made.
George’s course is a joint venture through Changins and HES-SO (Haute Ecole Spécialisée de Suisse Occidentale).
George, the son of two Romanian academics, one a professor of soil science and the other, economics and accounting, accidentally fell into the wine industry while studying an undergraduate degree in microbiology at New Mexico State University. He had planned to study medicine, but decided it was not for him, so he took a year off to go to work in Sonoma, California, on a small family-owned vineyard. “I loved the experience,” he explained.
“When I finished my degree I pursued more wine-making in Oregon in the Willamette Valley appellation.”
He then worked in Western Australia, Texas and New Mexico before moving to Nyon with his wife, Emma, a political science, English and Msc of Education graduate who is currently interning at the European Public Law Organisation in Geneva. The idea of living Switzerland attracted them both immediately.
Photo above – Geneva as seen from the RTS TV building
“My outlook before coming here was that there would be a good quality of life, fresh air, good food, mountains,” he explained. “We thought the Geneva area was a powerhouse for international relations and science.”
Photo above – The Jet d’Eau in Geneva
Once here, they settling into student housing provided by Changins and have been enjoying exploring the country. “We each have a GA travel card which allows us to gallivant all over Switzerland by train, bus or boat. It is not terribly expensive for a student – about CHF 240 a month.
Favourite places to visit
“I love the cantons. They have their own spirit and personality. I really like Zurich, it has a lot of character, and Spiez and the Jura for hiking.”
A perfect day out was spent by George and Emma at Vevey, visiting the Nestlé food museum, then walking along the lake to Montreux and its casinos, then on to Château Chillon.
Photo above – The vineyards of Lavaux
Photo above – The lakeside in Vevey
“We don’t eat out a lot because of the prices but we like Tartines + co in Nyon. They have a pretty good burger for 18 francs.”
George has been enjoying discovering Swiss wines and recommends Vaudois producers La Bâtie and Les Frères Dutruy from Founex and merlots from the Ticino region. “I have grown very fond of Chasselas,” he said. “I am surprised by the grape.”
Photo above – The Ticino
Finally, Living in Nyon asked what makes a good wine to a scientist.
“From a quantitative, objective perspective a good wine is one that has balance in parameters such as pH, acid content, alcohol, phenolic content and flavour compounds and exhibits stability for ageing. Also, a wine free of faults such as cork taint; acetic acid in excess; H2S, which gives an odour of rotten eggs; acrid acetaldehyde; and all other perpetrators denotes a good wine.
“Most of these parameters are simple quality control measures for overall product quality but do not predict or ensure a delicious, magical wine. Wines merit lies within the individual.”
All photos above – C. Nelson-Pollard