Alongside Bordeaux's historical attractions, the region's barriques are monuments in their own right. JAMES LAWTHER MW charts the history – and future – of these cradles of wine

Alongside Bordeaux’s historical attractions, the region’s barriques are monuments in their own right. JAMES LAWTHER MW charts the history – and future – of these cradles of wine

The barrique Bordelaise is as much a part of Bordeaux’s image as the stately châteaux of the Médoc or the medieval town of Saint-Emilion. A visit to the hallowed turf of a vaulted grand cru cellar with regimental rows of crimson-stained new oak barrels is proof enough. But the barrique also plays a crucial role in winemaking, one which continues to evolve empirically in a sometimes astonishing way.

The barrel was first used in Bordeaux in Celtic times, for storing and transporting liquid, but it wasn’t until the mid-19th century that the present 225 litre form was established. Already in the 18th century, though, the fundamentals for its main function today – maturing red wine – were applied. The principles have remained the same although the process has been steadily refined.

The French word for ageing wine is élevage, literally meaning “rearing”, but better translated as “maturing”. Barrel ageing or maturation is a means to an end rather than an end in itself. ‘Like the education of a child in preparation for adult life, so barrel maturation conditions the wine for ageing better in bottle,’ explains Paul Pontallier, director of Château Margaux.

Better ageing involves myriad methods: clarifying and stabilising the wine by precipitating tartrates before it arrives in bottle; transforming the wine’s chemical composition by the slow addition of tiny amounts of oxygen (to soften tannins, and to intensify and stabilise colour); and increasing aromatic complexity by the uptake of oxygen and extraction of volatile components in the oak.

The barrique is central to these changes and in Bordeaux it is governed by time-tested practices. There’s the racking or removal of wine from one barrel to another to eliminate deposits, clarify and aerate. Classically, this is done four times in the first year of maturation and three in the second. Then there’s length of time in barrel. Thirty years ago this was 30 months for fine wines but now with riper grapes and less aggressive tannins 24 months is the upper limit. ‘Years of experience show these techniques to comply with the style of wine we want to produce at Château Margaux,’ says Pontallier.

The use of new oak is back in favour, as it was for top wines in the 18th century. But the practice now comes with the understanding that older barrels can dry wines and are microbiologically less stable. Economic, stylistic and qualitative constraints govern the percentage of new oak used. While a dense Château Margaux can absorb 100% new oak, lesser wines can be smothered.

The barrel’s form has changed little in recent years (95cm in height with staves that are either 20-22mm thick for the “château” version or 24-27mm for the “transport”) but greater knowledge of oak and manufacturing means there is a choice of different coopers. ‘We now have a real partnership with producers, matching barrels to wine styles,’ says Jean-Luc Sylvain of Tonnellerie Sylvain. Ultimately, Bordeaux producers usually select from various different coopers for security of supply and greater complexity.

The malolactic fermentation in barrel which started on the Right Bank a dozen years ago is a return to former ways. The benefits are that the earlier the wine goes into barrel, the better the oak is integrated. Also, the wine has a smoother comportment at what is a very reductive stage through greater provision of oxygen and less compacted lees. ‘The wine tastes better earlier and just as well at a later stage,’ says Alain Vauthier, owner of Château Ausone.

But the method is labour intensive, as each barrel must be regularly controlled. Hence it is easier to apply at Château Ausone which produces around 80 barrels a year than at 600-barrel Château Margaux, which opposes the scheme. ‘We have experimented, but I find malolactic in barrel makes the wines oakier and the fruit less pure,’ says Pontallier.

Experiments have continued in maintaining and working the lees in barrel. Instead of racking, Stéphane Derenoncourt, consultant winemaker at Château Canon la Gaffelière, adds small doses of oxygen (micro-oxygenation or clicage as it is known in the cellar) when tasting analysis dictates.

’Racking is too systematic and imprecise and doesn’t take into account the nature of the wine each vintage,’ says Derenoncourt. ‘Adding a specific dose of oxygen when needed means the wine is fresher and less worn out.’

There is an inherent danger, though. Lees stirring is an imperfect science without specific rules. And when working the lees, there’s a lot of bacteria around.

So far the barrique Bordelaise has been used as a container for red wines and a vessel for maturation, with only white wines actually fermented within. But now, two Bordeaux producers are fermenting red wines in the 225 litre barrel.

Yves Vatelot of Bordeaux Supérieur Château Reignac is not the instigator of the idea but has modified and adapted a system which he has patented and hopes to sell on a commercial basis. Basically, a removable barrel end has been recast to include a trap for transferring the grapes. A metal arm is placed on the inside so that when the barrel is rotated on a rack, it acts as a form of pigeage or mini-rotofermenter.

The result is a wine called Balthus. The first vintage, 2002, tasted from barrel, has a pure, aromatic fruit expression, smooth texture, fleshy extract and well-integrated oak. The tannins are fine but compared to another wine from the same producer, Reignac, the structure seems lighter.

The philosophy at Vignobles Despagne, which produces Girolate, is different. The planting of a new vineyard at 10,000 vines per ha (hectare), yields of only 20hl/ha and hand harvesting represent a significant investment. Vinification takes place in regular barrels using bung holes for transfer of grapes. Overall there is much gentler handling and extraction.

It’s early days for either method but both have already met criticism. ‘I’ve spent 10 years opening up fermentation vats so can’t adhere to a system where you work blind and can’t see what you’re extracting,’ asserts Derenoncourt. The Bordeaux barrique, however, seems yet to have found its limitations.

Written by JAMES LAWTHER MW