Wine scientist Axel Marchal has been tipped by heavyweights such as Roederer’s Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon as a rising star of Bordeaux wine, but his natural habitat is the laboratory not the cellar.
The science of oenology is surely due a rebrand. Just as the best computer programmers are now coding superstars with their own agents, the profile of those working to uncover the DNA of wine is rising.
Rather than directly creating wines in the cellar, these oenologist-researchers are pushing the boundaries of our molecular understanding of wine.
Axel Marchal is a leading light in this new generation of wine scientists. He was described to me recently as the ‘future great oenologist of Bordeaux’ by Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon, chef de cave at Louis Roederer.
That is no small mantle to take on, given Bordeaux’s tradition of winemaker researchers, such as Emile Peynaud, Pascal Ribéreau-Gayon and Denis Dubourdieu.
In Bordeaux, one generation has always helped to teach the next. Sitting in Marchal’s lab at the prestigious Institute of Science and Vines (ISVV), he says the common thread is about handing on the importance of searching out answers ‘not for the scientific thrill of publishing academic papers, but for the love of wine and the desire to use science in a practical way to make it better’.
For Marchal, born in 1983 and now an associate professor at Bordeaux’s ISVV, it’s about using science to better understand what influences wine aroma and taste.
Marchal told me that, when he started his PhD, Bordeaux researchers were concentrating mainly on isolating individual aroma molecules. But, he said, understanding the molecules that contribute to taste, texture and sensations in wine, perhaps surprisingly, lagged far behind.
Specifically, he has spent several years working alongside Denis Dubourdieu trying to understand how a wine can have sweetness without sugar – or sucrosité sans sucre.
‘We know that red Bordeaux has been vinified dry (meaning that all the grape sugar has been converted into alcohol during winemaking),’ he says during visit to his laboratory. ‘And yet many of the greatest wines retain a sensation of sweetness. Denis had a feeling that there were some undiscovered molecules that would explain to us why that was.’
Now, they think the answer may lie in the oak. Read more about the new oak ageing research here.