Experimentation in winemaking is not only commonplace in Bordeaux, it is also increasingly accepted. JAMES LAWTHER MW reports

Experimentation in winemaking is not only commonplace in Bordeaux, it is also increasingly accepted. JAMES LAWTHER MW reports

Concentrators, wood chips, clonal selection, plastic sheeting under vines – it seems Bordeaux is awash with both legal and unauthorised experiments. But is this anything new? Bordeaux has been an important centre of applied research since the early part of the 20th century. Whether it be Professor Jean Ribéreau-Gayon’s defining of the process of malolactic fermentation in the 1950s, or more recently the work of Yves Glories and Vincent Dupuch on phenolic maturity, or Denis Dubourdieu’s investigation into aroma compounds, the region has continued, through experimentation, to advance the cause of wine. Subtle changes, though, have come about. Scientific study is still of primary concern, the research departments at the Faculté d’Oenologie, Chambre d’Agriculture and INRA (Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique) leading the fray, but there is also a willingness to pre-empt technical clarification in the effort to improve wines for the market today. The spread of microbullage (see page 10) is a testimony to this. Technical advances and examples of New World liberty have also encited producers to push the bounds of what is permissible within the constraints of appellation contrôlée. Finally, the speed of communication and increased technical ability of producers has meant thatexperimentation is no longer the sole preserve of the grands crus.

Experimentation is closely surveyed and controlled by both the European Union and the INAO (Institut National des Appellations d’Origine). The condemnation of four Bordeaux producers for the use of wood chips, upheld recently by the French Supreme Court of Appeal, was for contravening an EU rule dating from 1987 that outlaws the use of wood chips in appellation contrôlée wines. Experiments can legally take place with the blessing of the EU and INAO and with an adapted set of rules. Concentrators fall into this category. If this blessing is not gained, producers risk court action or losing appellation status.The core of experimentation in Bordeaux still lies with the research centres. The CIVB (Conseil Interprofessionnel du Vin de Bordeaux) handles a three-year budget, levied from producers, which in 2001 was raised from seven to 12 million FF (£1.15 million) for the purposes of research and quality control. Seventy percent of the budget goes directly towards experimentation and is spread around the research centres on projects devised in tandem with the CIVB. ‘The Bordeaux wine trade wants to participate actively in research to help improve quality,’ says Jacques Bertrand, former president of the Syndicat Viticole de Saint-Emilion and now president of the CIVB’s technical commission. Five themes have been adopted for ongoing research and experiment: understanding the terroir, protection of the vine combined with lutte raisonnée (care of the environment), character of the wines of Bordeaux, health and security in wine, and the use of sulphur. Within this framework research into topics as diverse as the influence of the date of effeuillage (leaf thinning) on the quality of wine, prevention of the fungal disease eutypiose, assessing the quality of the harvest and controlling sulphur levels has taken place.

Outside the organisation of the CIVB the power, influence and wealth of the grands crus has always provided a platform for experiment. The unofficial Club des Huit (the Médoc first growths, plus Château Haut-Brion, Cheval Blanc, Ausone and Pétrus) has, for the last 15 years, financed projects at the Faculté d’Oenologie as well as launching experiments on its own account. ‘We have just started trials to try and understand why, from one year to the next, two identical parcels of land can produce two different qualities of wine,’ explains Charles Chevallier, the technical director at Château Lafite. In Sauternes the finance for an experiment to understand the elements in noble rot that render sulphur inactive (by combining in wine) thereby eventually enabling sulphur levels to be reduced was refused by the CIVB but taken up by the crus classés including Château d’Yquem. With the emphasis now firmly on the idea that ‘quality grapes mean quality wine’, much of the experimentation at all levels is happening in the vineyards. ‘Systems of pruning and training the vine, plant densities, rootstocks for different types of soil, choice of manure, whether to plant north-south or east-west for better exposure – these are the sort of experiments I believe in most,’ says Hubert de Boüard, president of the Syndicat Viticole de Saint-Emilion and a pioneer in a number of viticultural experiments at Château Angélus.

In Margaux Henri Lurton of second growth Château Brane-Cantenac is running an experiment with the Chambre d’Agriculture to see if removing the entre-coeurs (lateral shoots) helps reduce the vigour of the vine. ‘The idea is that by doing this we won’t have to resort to green harvesting, but the results are not conclusive yet.’Back in Saint-Emilion the issue of finding better and less productive clones is also to the fore. Alain Vauthier, co-owner and manager of Château Ausone, is experimenting with up to 30 different types of clone, while at Château Cheval Blanc viticultural consultant Kees Van Leeuwen is looking into the problem of Cabernet Franc clones. ‘Cabernet Franc has great genetic variability and a lot of the clones available in Bordeaux are not very good.’ At Cheval Blanc he is propagating from older and better vines and with ENITA (Ecole Nationale Ingénieurs Travaux Agricoles) he is running a 10-year programme to produce one or two better clones for the market.

And then, of course, there is the plastic sheeting under the vines. ‘The problem in Bordeaux is the late season rainfall, which in a few days can ruin the year’s harvest by diluting the crop or causing botrytis. Placing plastic sheets on the ground between vineyard rows alleviates this as the water cannot penetrate to the vine roots,’ explains consultant oenologist Michel Rolland. The idea has been run on an experimental basis by the Chambre d’Agriculture and a few châteaux including Angélus, Pétrus, Valandraud and Rolland’s Fontenil for the last two or three years. However, it gained notoriety last year when the INAO finally said enough is enough, withdrew the experimental permit and then declassified wine from parcels of three offending châteaux, Valandraud, Fontenil and Carles. Beyond the polemics of the decision there are several reasons why the idea would never have gained wider appeal. It costs FF4 5,000 (£4,300) per hectare, there is the durability of the plastic to consider, run-off of water into neighbouring vineyards and aesthetically it is not very appealing. Cellar work also provides an opportunity for experimentation. At Château Smith-Haut-Lafite in Pessac-Léognan oenologist Gabriel Vialard has experimented with cold pre-fermentation maceration for red wines reducing the temperature to 0°C for 15 days, but rejected the idea because it brought out a fruity, primeur character. Other experiments have included malolactic fermentation for white wines and trials last year with concentrating a batch of white wine. ‘The experiment was interesting as acidity levels improved.’

Concentrators which remove the water content in grape must – both reverse osmosis and those which evaporate grape must under vacuum – are now authorised by the European Union and have been accepted by a number of Bordeaux syndicats. Although still ‘experimental’, the use of concentrators becomes more widespread. Some 60 Entropie vacuum machines are now operating in the region and probably as many reverse osmosis. Several companies offer a ‘concentrating’ service and two reverse osmosis machines were bought by the Saint-Emilion cooperative last year, taking use of the technology beyond the crus classés. Official reaction to their use has been mixed. In an article this year in the French magazine Marianne René Renou, president of INAO, railed against the use of ‘techniques with barbarous names like cryoextraction and reverse osmosis’. In Bordeaux the response from the CIVB has been more qualified. ‘Concentrators do not modify the structure of the grape and can help with the problem of dilution caused by rain at the harvest,’ says Jacques Bertrand. Producers on the ground are still circumspect but unanimous that concentrators are a useful technical device providing the grapes are already of a high standard. Legally producers must not exceed the authorised yield and must keep a register of wine that has been concentrated and the volume of water removed. At present they are not allowed to both chaptalise and concentrate the same batch.

Another technique that has been more widely embraced in Bordeaux is that of microbullage. The process can be broken down into three operations. Microbullage, defined as the continuous diffusion of a fine dose of oxygen into the vat during post-fermentation maceration, helps fix colour, soften tannins and lower the perception of vegetal aromas. The same process on wine aged in vat enables the wine to be aged on lees, thereby accentuating fruit character. The regular addition of oxygen to wine being aged on lees in barrel (or clicage, as it is known in cellar jargon) is a substitution for racking and provides extra flesh and a better integration of the oak. All three options have the advantage of making a wine taste better earlier. There are now 1,500 microbullage machines in the Bordeaux region, making this a widespread technique. But it is still experimental in the sense that as yet there has been no clear scientific study of the method and, as one producer put it, ‘everyone has been doing their own cuisine’. However, recent trials at the Faculté d’Oenologie have thrown some light on the subject. ‘The technique was developed in Madiran for dealing with the aggressive tannins of the Tannat grape, but Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon are less robust so producers should be cautious. Also the addition of oxygen during maceration has been found to alter the structure of the wine making it age quicker,’ explains Professor Yves Glories, dean of the Faculté d’Oenologie. Good for early drinking wines but a warning for those for the long haul seems to be the message. The divisive question with experimentation is where the line should be drawn. The defence of terroir and ‘Bordeaux character’ provides a strong rallying point. But so too does the perfection of winemaking for a modern and ever more competitive world.

Written by JAMES LAWTHER MW