A for Amphora, learning Bordeaux’s new ageing alphabet

The new wine is now ready, and I love visiting the warm chais (above ground cellars in Bordeaux) this time of year when the leaves are turning golden and temperatures are autumnal.

The wine has taken all it needs from the skins which have now been removed. The wine is now ready for the next step. In the old days we used to wait for the warmth of the Spring – now we just want to get on and control this step of the process of making wine – to get the wine finished and stable so we can relax over the winter.

Hard work digging out the skins still engorged with wine, here at la Dauphine in Fronsac. They then go into a press to squeeze out the precious press wine which can boost this years wine if it needs it

MLF, Nature’s magical transformation; The wine is heated to around 23°C to encourage bacteria that are found naturally in the wine to get busy and turn the green tasting malic acid (found in green apples) to transfer into the softer lactic acid (found in yoghurt) in the wine. This is called malolactic fermentation. It can either be done still in the vats or in barrel (you can tell its happening as C02 is produced and so glass bungs are used instead of silicon so the gas can escape).

Some 500 litre barrels here at Clinet in Pomerol, malolactic underway!

It makes tasting the baby wine easier as the malic acid accentuates the new wine’s tannins.

Avant premier of 2019 here atCoutet St Emilion

Once this is complete the wine is ready to start its ageing in barrel. Traditionally in Bordeaux this was always done in barrel (Bordeaux’s 225 litre barrique, 300 bottles). The newer the oak, the more oaky the taste. The way of getting less oaky taste was to use older barrels, ones already used for ageing one wine or for two wines. (Older barrels than this do not give anything except potential problems!).

What happens when the wine ages in the barrel & the 3 main reasons for ageing in oak barrels; i) impart flavours such as vanilla, caramel, machiato when lightly toasted to smokey, espresso and dark chocolate flavours when more toasted iii) add wood tannins to complement the grape skin tannins iv) with a small amount to oxygen passes through the wood grain which enables the wine to develop and stabilise itself cleaning itself by throwing a sediment of all of its impurities (the process of removing these is called racking and also exposes the wine to more air)

Terracotta amphora at Beausejour Becot St Emilion

Oak is no Longer the dictator here though the thick skins of the Cabernet and even the Merlot packed with tannins and colour and flavour suit the nuances that oak can bring. Oak is still an important ingredient in bringing together Bordeaux wines that are set to develop and age over a few years.

Gone are the days such as in the 80s and 90s where oaky wines were only revered for the over-riding sweety oaky tones which often covered up nature’s expression of the terroir (they were also the day’s . We are looking for fresher fruity flavours. More attention is paid in the vineyard to picking the fruit when it is ripe but still fresh rather than over-ripe and jammy.

Today in response to consumer demand to be able to drink wines earlier, taste less oaky and more of fresh fruit, it has become quite common-place and the fashion to see larger oak barrels but also other containers to make the wine; terracota, concrete or even glass amphoras amongst the rows of oak barrels.

The benefit to the wine, as Nathaël Suils (Oenotheque) responsable for the invasion of the terracota amphoras Tava into the normally barrel dominated cellars over the past year or two, is three-fold. It micro-oxygenates the wine as a barrel does, its convex shape encourages the wine and lees to swirl around enriching itself on the way and thirdly well nothing. Its neutrality preserves the fruit of the wine. All three factors help to produce a fruitier, fresher wine.

It also is greener, reducing the need to fell two hundred year old oak trees and costs less. A new barrel costs around 800€ and needs replacing every three years at least, the concrete and terracotta amphoras last forever. The wine aged in the different containers are usually all then blended together. Some entrepreneurial smaller producers such as the Famille Hubert, are even taking it further such as Peybonhomme-les-tours ‘Energie’ in Blaye are producing a wine aged uniquely in amphoras – that is without any oak.

Many of the SIP (small independent producers), have always done this – blending oak aged wine with fruitier wine that has aged only in their concrete vats. These producers could never be criticised for using too much new oak. Cost has been a factor but perhaps too they have always liked to taste what the wines are made of and that is grapes.