Andrew Jefford catches up with Alain Razungles, long-serving Professor of Oenology at Montpellier SupAgro.
France, like Australia, undertakes copious, high-quality oenological and viticultural research in order to back up its position as the world’s leading supplier of quality wines (based on an export price more than double the global average), with university centres in Bordeaux, Dijon, Reims and my adopted home town of Montpellier. When I lived in Adelaide between 2009 and 2010 (home of the Australian Wine Research Institute), I was hugely impressed by the level of outreach and the readiness to share research findings publically. As a mere journalist, I was able to learn a lot and share some of that knowledge with Decanter readers.
In France, by contrast, wine-research institutions seem to be tucked away in their silos with no public interface, and I’ve found it difficult to reach researchers, find out what they’re working on, and help their findings inform a broader audience. The research itself may be cutting-edge, but the communicative function is decades behind the times — perhaps because public funding still plays a disproportionately large role in this, as in so many other French institutions. If wine producers themselves had a direct stake in the research, as they do in Australia, a more communicative culture might take root.
All of this, as it happened, was far from my mind as I stood in the sunlit Place de la Liberté in St Guilhem le Désert after the funeral of Aîmé Guibert last May. That was when I met Alain Razungles, Professor of Oenology at Montpellier SupAgro’s Institute of Higher Studies in the Vine and Wine. We chatted a while, and made an autumn plan for a longer discussion about his work (he’s spent 37 years at Montpellier) as well as the broader Languedoc-Roussillon scene. Razungles is unusual among his colleagues in that he also runs the 35-ha Domaine des Chênes in the spectacular setting of Vingrau in Roussillon, a family property since 1919, and he has also taken part over many years in tasting panels for the Revue du Vin de France and the Guide Hachette. He’s regularly, in other words, climbed out of the silo.
His academic career began as a detour. “My parents were wine growers for many generations – I’ve found a reference to a gold medal won by my great-grandfather in 1912. But my father worked with my uncle and the domain couldn’t support three people, so I left and made my way elsewhere, knowing that it would eventually come my way. My plan was to take over the consulting laboratory in Estagel in the heart of the Agly valley, but I needed finance to buy the business. Viticulture was in such a bad way at the end of the 1970s that the banks wouldn’t lend me the money. I applied for the post of Assistant Professor at Montpellier and got the job, so my career as a teacher and researcher began in 1980.”
As a teacher, he’s had to keep up with the vast amount of technical change the last four decades have brought; but as a researcher, his main areas of interest were chemical and sensorial analysis, and in particular work on ‘aromatic precursors’ and aromatic exhausteurs (meaning substances which augment aromatic profiles). “When you taste the grapes of Pinot Noir, Grenache or Merlot, you can’t really discern much of a difference between them. But when you taste a Pinot Noir from Burgundy, a Syrah from Hermitage or a Merlot from St Emilion, you see that they are clearly different. What’s happened between the grape and the wine? If there is such a sensorial difference between them, it’s because there were different molecules in each wine. They were present but not expressive in the grapes; they were in the form of precursors. It’s that logic of precursors which we’ve done so much work on.”
In his pure research work, he’s helped tease out and identify a number of these substances; while the practical applications of this research have included work on the impact of sunshine and shade on the aromatic precursors of different grape varieties, as well as work on the terroir-related impact of vine nutrition, and different vinification techniques, on these often fragile molecules. And he gave me a practical tip, too: don’t start swirling a wine in a newly poured glass. “You shouldn’t move the glass when you are served wine. You should sniff it as it is, and you’ll then notice all the most volatile molecules – like, for example, the ‘truffle’ aroma of dimethyl sulphide in certain older wines. Once you’ve noted them, then you can move the glass.”
I asked him about a number of contemporary wine topics. On the question of wild yeasts, for example, he points out that “there’s no difference between a wild organism and a selected organism. A selected yeast is just a wild yeast that has been encountered by a researcher who has multiplied it a bit.” As a wine producer himself, he favours a population of different selected yeasts, since “they will give you the assurance of a normal fermentation. Wild yeasts don’t give you that assurance. And in any case voracious, quickly developing yeasts always end up by dominating less voracious yeasts. Even with wild yeasts, one yeast strain will generally be dominant by the end of fermentation.”
The renewed interest in whole-bunch fermentations for red wines amuses him, “since we have spent so much money and effort in sorting equipment and personnel to remove every tiny speck of non-grape matter from a harvest – and then, with whole bunch, back it all comes. When you keep stems in a ferment, you will extract above all potassium (which will precipitate the tartaric acid from the wine, which may not be a good idea in times of global warming) and tannin. And the tannins of the stems are less interesting than the tannins of the grape skins. So I say that if you have enough tannins already from the grape skins, then you don’t need to extract them from the stems. If you have enough acidity and need tannin for ageing, by contrast, then stems can be useful if they are lignified, which is why some burgundy producers (like DRC) use them.”
He’s a fan of wood (though not necessarily new wood) for any wine which is intended to be aged, both white and red. “For white wines, a barrique is a porous system which brings very interesting oxido-reduction effects during fermentation and ageing, which enables you to keep the fine lees and do bâtonnage, which brings a wealth and structure to the wine which will enable it to be stored. And which in turn will release storage aromas which are much more interesting and complex than the aromas of youth. For red wines, barrique storage brings oxygen, which is very beneficial if you want to make red wines which are soft-contoured in terms of tannin but have plenty of substance nonetheless.” And amphorae? “Well, they’re beautiful. I don’t know too much about their porosity, though I’d be interested to find out more. But I do know that the students I’ve had who’ve worked with them all say that cleaning them is a nightmare job. There’s no tap at the bottom, and if you get into them you are always terrified of them falling over and breaking, so everyone has problems maintaining them. Whereas cleaning a barrel is easy – it’s virtually unbreakable.”
Climate change is an issue he has faced personally at his domain as well as professionally at the University. “When I was a boy, we harvested on September 25th. Now harvesting in my village begins on August 25th — and that’s in just one generation.” He’s not keen on acidification. Early picking “could be an appropriate response — but we know that all of the aromatic precursors are more present as maturation advances. The longer you wait, the more present they are and the more aromatic richness advances. If you pick too early, you will generally deprive yourself of that aromatic richness.” His solutions include replanting with better chosen (later ripening) varieties or moving vineyards up in altitude, but he is also hopeful that the research community will be able to help by selecting vines “which know how to react to excessive heat or drought by limiting shoot production or by closing their stomata in periods of great heat or drought.”
When I asked him about the enigmatic ‘minerality’ question, he replied that it was something he had often asked himself — without reaching a definite conclusion. “Wine pH, salts and some volatile molecules like vitispirane or trimethyl dihydronaphthalene may play a role — but causal relations at the molecular level are very difficult to discern. Don’t forget that we are talking about the combination of hundreds of molecules. The intimate link between the molecular profile of a wine and the aromas and flavours which result from that profile … is work for my colleagues in the future.”
What, finally, about Languedoc-Roussillon itself, and its character and potential? Will we see Languedoc wines rival those of Hermitage and Côte Rôtie in a decade or two? “They already exist! When I first tasted Prieuré de St Jean de Bébian 35 years ago I said to myself ‘Wow! This could be a great Châteauneuf du Pape.’ Marlène Soria, Sylvain Fadat, Olivier Jullien and many others do fantastic work here. The problem is that it takes time to achieve public recognition.”
“I recently took my wine to the Salon des Vignerons Indépendants at Paris and I had colleagues from a Beaujolais cru and from Gigondas and Vacqueyras to each side of me. There were twice as many people stopping at their stands as at mine. That’s historical recognition. The growers tasted my wines and admitted they were as good as theirs, but cheaper. Back in `74 or `75, I was at the co-operative at Tautavel in Roussillon when Emile Peynaud visited, together with a dozen or so Bordeaux professionals. He wrote a letter to the co-op director afterwards, commenting on all the vintages he had tasted. And at the end he wrote: ‘In the opinion of all of us, these were like very good St Emilions’. Signed Emile Peynaud. There were big percentages of Carignan there at the time; macerations of eight days; the winemaking was protective but plain — but the wines were very, very good. It was the terroir that spoke. We have enormous advantages and can make great wine here; it’s just that you need a generation or two to get that message across.”