It is always an emotional moment at this time of year when we see in the vineyards the glistening tears of the vines (‘les pleurs’) that tell us that the new vintage is underway. As the temperatures rise so does the sap in the vines and where the pruners have trimmed the end of the branch, we see this beautiful sight that reassures us – telling us whatever happens, nature continues.
The baby buds are beginning to come out timidly but soon the stark branches of the vines will be green again as these fragile leaves unfurl in the spring sunlight.
But who knows what is in store for the vines this year? Will 2021 be a challenging vintage or an easy one full of sunshine? With the growing season starting so early, the first hurdle is that of late frost. It seems to be more and more of a problem in recent years, this late frost scorching any new growth like a rampant fire. We will all remember 2017 which for many never even left the starting blocks.
Meantime in the cellars the baby wine from last year is peacefully sleeping not knowing that in future years this 2020 vintage will bring so many mixed memories when we uncork a bottle. Their cribs are the rounded barrels made of oak so famous in Bordeaux and around the world. Originally they were just containers to transport the wine on ships (known as cogs) bound for England. (In fact the reason why we have 12 bottles in a case dates back to this time when 4 barrels equated to 900 litres that is 100 cases of 12 bottles of 75 cl!)
Today ageing in oak barrels prepares the wine for ageing in bottle. The gradual oxygenation through the tight grain of the oak, helps the wine to stabilise, clean itself by throwing a sediment and add some oak tannins to give added structure to help preserve the wine over the years in bottle.
The wine takes on additional flavours like a good french breakfast – toasted brioche, creamy chocolate or even stronger flavours sweet vanilla, baking spices like nutmeg and smokey notes. Being quite small (225 litres that is 300 bottles) the impact of the oak, particularly with new barrels is powerful.
Oak ageing adds a ‘sweetness’ to the wine which in the past has often been used as a thick makeup to cover not only any little blemishes but the whole character of the wine itself – and the taste of the grapes themselves and the taste of where it came from – its terroir, its identity.
Today in many cellars in Bordeaux, classified and smaller châteaux, standing next to the traditional oak barrels, we find a ‘new’ way of ageing wine in amphoras – large or small, terracotta or earthen-ware. Jean-Michel Comme at Château Pontet-Canet was the first in 2012 to develop his own amphoras made of concrete the size of 4 barrels.
They encourage movement of the wine, there is some oxygenation too but their main purpose is that they are neutral and keep the freshness of the fruit without adding any new flavours. (In fact many smaller wine producers traditionally did this by just leaving a proportion of the wine in cement vats)
Today we have swung the other way I feel with whole battalions of these terracotta armies – at Château Durfort Vivens in Margaux there are no less than 160. It is a relief to taste more of the fruit in wines today but how long will they last. As with everything it requires a balance. Perhaps we wont want to be reminded of these unusual years. Time will tell.