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vineyard on a hillside

Helping local winegrowing communities adapt to global challenges

Published: 11 July 2023

Professor Marion Demossier believes that ethnographic fieldwork provides a unique way to examine contemporary cultures and societies. 

“You can immerse yourself in a community and study its language, habits and beliefs over a period of time,” she explains. 

This leads to what ethnographers call a “native point of view”, which can provide rare insights into the relationship between people and their environment.

As a young anthropologist, Marion was interested in studying rural communities. So she was thrilled when she had the chance to do fieldwork in a winegrowing community in Burgundy. 

“Among food commodities”, she explains, “wine offers the most complex example of post-rural agricultural transition. 

“There is a huge debate going on about ecological risks and how to transform traditional agricultural systems. But still very little is understood about the particular challenges faced by wine producers.” 

For Marion, an anthropologist with a passionate interest in viticulture, ethnographic fieldwork offered a chance to shine a light on these challenges. 

But first, she would have to win the acceptance of the winegrowing community itself.

Rural Burgundy is not always open to outsiders. It was also the mid-1990s and “wine was becoming rapidly commodified”. This meant wine producers could be guarded about revealing the secrets of their methods. 

Using immersive research to understand the challenges faced by winegrowers in Burgundy

To be accepted by the winegrowing community, Marion knew she must become an active part of it.

As an ethnographer, this meant “talking their language, doing what they do and working in the vineyards with them.” Naturally, it also meant drinking wine with them. 

Marion gradually earned privileged access to the winegrowers over a period of 10 years. This meant she could freely observe “all the little details” of their lives. It also meant they were more open to being interviewed at length. 

“Ethnography allows us to hold a mirror to people and ask them difficult questions,” says Marion. “Some winegrowers were surprised. They said to me: “We have never been asked these questions before”.”

During her research, Marion began to understand the importance of “terroir”, a sense of identity rooted in a place and its wine-producing tradition. In Burgundy this can apply to anything from a whole valley to a particular row of vines.

She could see that the traditional idea of “terroir” was under strain. Not only from social changes and an increasingly commodified global marketplace, but from nature itself. 

Globalisation and climate change have radically transformed world wine production

In other French regions, a wine revolution had already started, with the rise of organic, biodynamic viticulture questioning the terroir ideology.

Many wine producers weren’t sure how to adapt to these changes. For this reason, Marion was keen to encourage knowledge-sharing between the wine producers and experts in other fields, such as climatologists and economists. 

These meetings with other experts gave wine producers new insights into how it might be possible to face up to emerging challenges and engage more critically with nature. 

Marion is now convinced that a multidisciplinary approach to wine production can show us how to collaborate on other global issues.

“Wine production,” she explains, “offers a useful lens by which global challenges can be understood.” 

Sharing insights with winegrowing communities around the world

Marion has since carried out fieldwork in communities in Italy, Switzerland and New Zealand. As a result, she has been able to share her insights with wine producers and communities around the world.

“My research has helped producers understand how they can use their environment and unique practices to their advantage by using these to define the characteristics of their wines. This has helped them make their brands stand out in an increasingly globalised market.”

Marion’s ethnographic work has also had a significant impact on the tourist industry. In 2015, she was asked to work on Burgundy’s bid for UNESCO world heritage status. The successful bid led to a 25% rise in tourism in the area.

Man holding glass of wine
Burgundy has more protected wines than any other French region

In 2019, she also worked on a successful bid for UNESCO status for Conegliano e Valdobbiadene, a prosecco-wine producing area in northern Italy. 

Marion says: ”I have also worked with Central Otago wine producers in New Zealand, helping them to understand what terroir means in practice for their quality wines.”

Now she is keen to develop her multidisciplinary approach further and bring a fresh voice to the debates surrounding climate action. 

“My current research aims to facilitate the circulation and mediation of knowledge by bringing a humanities-driven approach to sensitive environmental debates.”

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