The Sixth Sense

A musing by Wilco Lam, extracted from our 2017 annual magazine

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When tasting a wine, the vineyard connection is often described as part of the ‘terroir’ of its place of origin, with the soil seen as a major contributor. Not often are the honours ascribed to the vines’ capacity to adapt to the conditions it is placed in, and subsequently its ability to translate this characteristic in the wine. When [these] external factors are partly responsible in personalising a wine, they can only come forth as a product of the result of these elements, with plants and their senses as the facilitator giving rise to this. With the gradual change towards a deductive and laboratory form of plant science introduced by Descartes and Newton and a more intellectual perspective on plants through Darwin’s influence, we have managed to remove a large part of our wonder and amazement of the role of plants. To my opinion, we have become more desensitised to the close relationship we require with them. For plants provide us with the air we breathe, food and water we consume and shelter from the elements, this productive workhorse little often receives the credit it deserves. The following musing discusses some of the extraordinary capabilities of plant life that many of us might take for granted. It looks at commonalities and traits we would normally ascribe only to humans or perhaps animals, which help shape the personality of a wine.

Earlier this year I was drawn into a conversation with Australian wine writer Mike Bennie about the Maori concept of Tûrangawaewae, “the external world as a reflection of the inner sense of security and foundation”, and how to relate this to wine. As a Dutch immigrant, my relationship with New Zealand has only been formed over the last 13 years, and I can therefore not claim to relate to this concept like many others in New Zealand can. However, I do take this on board, and look at this concept by holding up a mirror as an outsider to reflect this sense of place in our wines. In a way, this impacts Dry River well, since our wines have never been a reflection of the mainstream. On the contrary, we are very much positioned on the fringe, due to a set of different beliefs regarding wine growing. Let’s examine one of these aspects viewed through our vineyard.

Normally one doesn’t consider plants to be able to possess senses that register and communicate outside influences, which can reflect in their personality. Surely if plants, in this case grapevines, reflect anything, it must be a result of human intervention? I wondered about this after reading “The man that mistook his wife for a hat” by Oliver Sacks. Here he described a case of a woman experiencing the feeling of being paralysed, without physically being paralysed. This is a process identified as a loss of proprioception, disembodiment, or at times also referred to as our Sixth Sense. By means of proprioception we are aware of the position of our limbs, relative to our body. That is why we can touch the tip of our nose with our eyes closed. Scientists have also accepted that plants ‘experience’ other bodily functions like humans. They communicate, sense touch, observe colour, and wage chemical warfare to dominate space around them. However, it might come as a surprise that plants also experience this proprioception; embodiment.

There is a challenge to the anthropomorphic idea for a plant to make observations and have senses. Many will wonder how we can relate to plants in this way for they do not possess a central nervous system or receptors to stimulate this in the way we, humans and animals, do. To accept that a plant mimics human behaviour, including exhibiting a social hierarchy, will push many boundaries. However, when we read experts talk about wine and wine assessment, often descriptors like “expression of terroir”, “life in a wine” and “stamina”, only to name a few, are not shied away from. Agreed, this can apply to the chemical make-up of the wine and the way for example the wine responds to oxygen and temperature. Nonetheless, the discourse certainly is personified and related to as if the wine possesses human like qualities. When we delve further into the assessment of human like senses in plants, it becomes more difficult to ridicule these findings.

Since plants are sessile beings, robust coping mechanisms need to be available for them to survive, thrive and make us, humans, dependent on them. When Charles Darwin in the late 19th century reported in “The Power of Movement in Plants” on light sensitivities in plants, his results were met with disbelief and scepticism. He showed after a series of experiments that plants have a tendency to grow towards a light source, a response for what is explained as phototropism. We now understand that plants have three times the amount of photo receptors compared to humans, and have the ability to observe UV-light in a wider spectrum than we do. It gives them the ability to observe day versus night and changes of the season. They will also use these receptors to trigger their flowering parts and to grow towards the light source.

In his book “What a Plant Knows”, Professor Daniel Chamovitz discusses the sensory system of plants. He explores how plants excrete odours, phenolic compounds that help attract or deter insects, but also help to communicate their presence to other plants. Once this is observed, a specific plant will grow towards or away from these aromas or trigger defence mechanisms in case of an insect or pathogen attack. Equally, underground a plant can excrete chemical compounds to fend off other roots to occupy space to deter soil borne pathogens and insects or connect to its neighbours. Once we can accept that plants possess smell and vision, we can also start to comprehend plants understand up from down by sensing gravity in cells on the tips of their growing shoots and roots.

The English Oxford Dictionary describes the sixth sense as “an intuitive faculty giving awareness not explicable in terms of normal perception”. The first part would implicate no central nervous system is required, the second part is that perception can be in any form. If our relationship with wine is purely from a pleasure or stress release point of view, the above bears no meaning. However, if the relationship with a particular wine goes beyond this, personal attributes of a wine require a history and can be further explored.

In my eyes, Turangawaewae expresses love for a certain place and everything connected to it. And in order to fall in love, a personal connection with the “subject” is required. Since plants are sensible and autonomous beings that have the ability to recognise and function in a social hierarchy, they establish a relationship with the winemaker who will further communicate this. The notion of connection to one-self or to a community, gives rise to a sense of existence and meaning. If disconnected and disembodied one is estranged from this relationship. By accepting this concept, we can recognise personification through senses and give significance to this in our vineyards.

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