Such advances in Bordeaux winemaking technique have been spearheaded by the likes of Michel Rolland and Stéphane Derenoncourt, especially where red wines are concerned, and by Professor Denis Dubourdieu, most notably in the realm of white wines. All three men now consult worldwide, implying that it is the winemaking techniques developed in Bordeaux that are subsequently exported around the (New) world – and not the contrary. Professor George Gale, PhD, the affable American scientist, philosopher, and winemaker, states “Bordeaux is cutting edge. In fact, I can think of only one lab in the U.S. that is even close – Bruce Zoecklin’s at Virginia Tech. But then, he maintains very close contact with France, and frequently visits there, as well as having French scientists come to his lab”. Gale continues, “It’s clear to me that all the stuff about bâtonnage and fruit maturity is coming out of Bordeaux.”
Back in the late 1980’s, Michel began encouraging winemakers to pursue lengthier macerations at warmer temperatures. Having harvested riper, healthier fruit, longer macerations became possible without running the risk of developing excessive astringency or bitter flavors. Additionally, fermenting and macerating the Merlot at warmer temperatures (in the low 30° C range) allowed winemakers to coax more color and flavor elements from this somewhat reticent varietal.
In the early 1990’s, Olivier Sèze began full-scale, now systematic, experimentation at his Château Charmail in the Haut-Médoc, with what is called pre-fermentation, cold maceration whereby the temperature of the fruit in the tanks is dropped to as low as 5° C and held there for up to two weeks. During this period, there appears to be little or no yeast activity (i.e. fermentation) but there is considerable enzyme activity. Additionally, the environment within the vat is “sanitized”, with many negative components neutralized by the intense cold. The result is that once the must has warmed sufficiently for fermentation to begin, color extraction is greatly facilitated and the tannins extracted are softer, more “coated”. Initially, some critics – and there are always many any time change is introduced – claimed that these gains would be short-lived. However, vertical tasting 10 and 15 years on have shown that the color remains dark and the tannins supple. Since Olivier’s pioneering work with this technique (not technology), many top estates around Bordeaux have come to employ it on a regular basis.
These techniques were followed by the refining of extraction methods and experimentation with cap punching (pigeage) versus the more violent pumping over (remontage). Stéphane Derenoncourt and Claude Gros, for example, tend to favor the cap punching technique, believing that it favors softer extraction of tannins. Délestage – whereby all the juice in a tank is run off and, after a slight delay, reintroduced through the top of the tank – is now being added to the arsenal of gentle extraction techniques, notably at Château Belle-Vue, also in the Haut-Médoc.
Malolactic in barrel and barrel aging
The 1990’s saw many Bordeaux winemakers begin conducting their malolactic fermentations in 100% new French oak barrels, especially where the Merlot was concerned. This technique tempers and catalyzes the marriage between the new wine and new wood, eliminating the violent shock that occurs when a “clean” wine (one whose malo has taken place in tank) is run off into new barrels. While the long-term differences are still a subject of debate, there is no question that the wines show far better in their adolescence, thereby increasing their span of enjoyability.
This aging of top Bordeaux wines entirely in new French oak barrels for 15 to 18 or more months represents yet another break with the past. The skyrocketing cost of new French oak barrels is the best proof that this technique, too, is being copied around the world.
More recently, Bordeaux winemaking consultants have encouraged their clients to age their wines in barrel on the “post-malo” lees with minimal racking during the barrel aging. The sur lies aging technique better fixes the wine’s color while actually “nourishing” the new wine. The lees are regularly stirred into suspension during the first several weeks, if not months, in barrel. An even newer technique, the Oxoline system, allows the barrels to be “rocked and rolled” in place, thereby sending the lees into suspension without having to open the bungs in order to perform the bâtonnage.
As the maturing wine goes into a reductive phase, it is naturally protected from oxidation and thus requires far less SO2 during the aging process. However, should this reduction become too pronounced, and potentially dangerous, yet another technique developed south of Bordeaux (by Patrick Ducourneau at his Chapelle Lenclos in Madiran), called microbullage, or micro-oxygenation, can be used to arrest or thwart the development of mercaptans. This technique brings with it the added advantage of softening the wine’s tannins. And, since the barrels need not be opened to get the lees into suspension, there is less risk of bacterial contamination from the ambient air in the cellars. This technique has since been emulated elsewhere in France and around the world, old and new!
appear to be the early benefits. Michel Rolland has called this the single most important development in fermentation technique in the last two decades.
Bottling without fining or filtration
Most of Bordeaux’s top wines are bottled today with little or no fining or filtering. After expending so much effort in producing such full, rich, ripe, and fruity wines as these, Bordeaux winemakers are disinclined to negate so much of their effort by employing to excess either of these techniques. Turbidity and microbiological analyses are there to guide the winemaker’s final pre-bottling decision. But most consider that today’s extended aging in new oak barrels, in so far as it occurs in well-ventilated, TCA-free cellars, is sufficient for natural clarification of the wine. Consequently, fining and/or filtering are frequently deemed to be unnecessary. Additionally, most modern wine consumers are comfortable with the idea that a truly natural wine may throw some sediment. So be it!
For all of the reasons outlined above, I contend that Bordeaux, in spite of its geographic location in the “Old World”, is constantly on the cutting edge in matters of vineyard management and winemaking. But, it is certainly not Bordeaux that is producing vins technologiques! Those are coming from the Constellation of “New World” wineries concerned with mass marketing and critical mass. I have heard Australian winemakers tell me proudly that they let the wine make itself . . . and then they correct it. Two of their favorite “tools” are rectified grape concentrate and wood chips. Both are still banned in Bordeaux.
Jeffrey M. Davies, Bordeaux – June 2010
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