Burgundy Diary part 1: A Perfect Storm of Premature Oxidation – A Conversation with Dominique Lafon

Until the 1996 vintage, you could count on enjoying premier cru white Burgundy from around 6 or so years after the vintage to well over a decade, and you might start grand crus after 7 or 8 years and enjoy for another decade. Then everything changed abruptly, and wines began to show levels of oxidation after only three or four years: the color would darken, the aromas would resemble Sherry, and the palate would seem to dry out.

No one knows why premox started so suddenly. The first wines I experienced it with were from the 1996 vintage. It was random, with some bottles just fine while others from the same case were affected, and some producers seemed to have less problems than others, but I’ve subsequently had examples even from the producers who seemed immune. It’s been a disaster for anyone who prizes old white Burgundy, with the window for enjoying the wine really foreshortened.

What was most puzzling was that it seemed to affect everyone in a random way. As the problem has continued over the years, it’s become apparent that there isn’t any single, simple explanation. It seems to have been a perfect storm with many different factors contributing. Dominique Lafon has been a leader in looking for solutions. While there are still some producers who deny the severity of the problem, Dominique feels it should be addressed head on, although he points out that people often confuse natural aging with premature oxidation. “They open an old bottle and say it’s oxidized, but if you open a 1996, it’s not premature oxidation, it’s the aging process.” He sees the problem as resulting from the accumulation of many factors and has been taking a very scientific approach to pinning them down one by one. “It’s no use changing everything at once,” he says “because then you don’t know what the critical factors are.”

A morning at Comte Lafon ended with a wonderful tasting of his range of premier crus from 2012 and I’ll discuss the changing style of Meursault in a later post, but now I’ll report just on the conversation in which I asked Dominique about the factors that have been associated with premox.

How much of a problem have you had with premox? “The first vintage I really saw problems with was 1999; what puzzled us was that it was very random. The first thing we thought was that we had cork failures – I think we did – but it was showing the fragility of the wine. We started by working on the corks, we asked them to stop the peroxide treatment. (Peroxide, which is a strong oxidizing agent, was introduced to clean corks to avoid treating them with chlorine, which was causing the increased levels of TCA responsible for corked wines.) We went back from silicon coating to paraffin (which makes a better seal).”

“Then I worked on the reduction level, we’ve experimented with the amount of lees we trap – a wine that is more reduced will withstand a small cork failure. We worked to get the right amount of lees that would give just that nice level of reduction. In 1999 we had a huge crop, I was looking for space, and so we had used less lees.”

Is battonage a factor? “My father did a lot but I’ve never done much.” What about racking? “We do at least 18-20 months in barrel, but in the summer we move from young to older barrels, we used to do it with air, and we used to get rid of some of the lees, but I don’t use air now and I keep all the lees. We want to have more carbon dioxide in the wine, which is very protective. And of course raising the sulfur level is easy. The future work will be to get the sulfur level lower.”

Has the problem been fixed? “We are close now. All those things were done by 2007-2008, and in 2009 I met with Denis Dubourdieu and we did experiments here and at Roulot on the pressing. We worked to get more glutathione (an indication of reduction) and less sotolon (an indication of oxidation). By splitting the pressing and leaving 20% at the end we do better, and then we oxidize the last part fully. And we start fermentation in stainless steel tanks, which makes it more precise.”

“At assemblage tanks are flushed with nitrogen before filling. We bought a machine to generate nitrogen, because you have to flush the tank four times, and the bottles of nitrogen aren’t enough and are expensive.”

“We follow the dissolved oxygen all the way through. We know 1 mgm dissolved oxygen will absorb 5 mgm free sulfur. At the lab, people are satisfied when they get 2 mgm dissolved oxygen in the wine, but we are at the point where we have 0.5 mgm before bottling and it might go up to 0.8 mgm after bottling.

“We use special bottles that allow dissolved oxygen to be checked at bottling. Since 2009 we’ve brought the wine back to the lab after 8 months to check the sulfur levels and carbon dioxide and to taste. We bottle with free sulfur around 35, when we check after 8 months it’s always 28-33, we think 20 would be enough.” We walked around to look at the bottling machine. It has some sophisticated additions to vacuum the air out of the bottle and to inject nitrogen.

What about using other closures? “I’m pretty sure that with time everyone will use technical corks. Diam (a cork that’s been treated to eliminate problems with TCA) is more consistent. I’m amazed, it’s always slightly more reduced when you compare in tastings. In terms of seal, Diam will do the work, but we don’t know whether it will get into the wine long term.”

Even in the premox era I’ve had some fantastic old white Burgundies – well, to be honest, it wasn’t intentional, they were in my cellar and I forgot about them, and by the time I found them some were shot, but the best from the late nineties were as brilliant as ever. (I have not done so well with the 2005 vintage whichseems to be aging more rapidly than usual.) I’ve tasted many wonderful wines in Meursault and in Puligny Montrachet this week – reports coming up in later Diaries – and I just hope that the problem has been resolved as these wines all strike me as awfully young, and I’d like to look forward to enjoying them at the peak, maybe a decade or more from now.

 

 

 

 

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The Oakiness of It All

We’ve come a long way since oak was merely a storage and maturation medium for wine. Judging from an all day seminar that Taransaud organized in London for the Institute of Masters of Wine, its role today is second only to the grapes themselves. The seminar was divided into two parts: a morning that considered individually many of the parameters that determine the effects of oak; and an afternoon looking at innovations to respond to changes in modern winemaking. Here’s a report on the morning; the afternoon will follow.

The background according to Henri de Pracomtal, Chairman of Taransaud, is that use of new oak is declining, down to 85% instead of a mandatory 100% when the vintage isn’t up to it in Bordeaux, although typically staying more or less around a third new, a third one year, and a third two year in Burgundy. The use of 200% oak (successive use of new barrels) is “dead.” There’s been significant backing off from new oak in the New World. The focus here was all on oak barrels,  although Taransaud also own Canton in Kentucky, where other formats are used. When they bought Canton, Henri was horrified to see oak chips, and wanted to stop their production, but “look at the profit margin” they told him. “Oak chips are for short term aromatics rather than long term élevage,” he says. The seminar was entirely about the effects of different barrel regimes on wine quality and style.

A long list of aroma and flavor compounds that are extracted from oak made it clear in a talk from Taransaud’s oenologist, Nicolas Tiquet-Lavandier, that the effects are profound. Considering how long oak has been used, it seems surprising that new compounds are still being discovered. I was also surprised that the role of oxygen loomed so large, with discussion about the porosity of the oak, entry between the staves, and through the bung. I thought it had now been established that basically all oxygen enters through the bung (which should mean there’s much less since the change to the new silicon bungs).

The heart of the seminar was a series of comparative tastings with wines that had been specially vinified under different conditions. The results of comparing French, Hungarian and American oak were fairly predictable, with a strong contrast between the toasty vanillin of Château Puygueraud (Côtes de Francs) 2011 in French oak and the stronger aromas of coconut from American oak. Since French and American oak are different species of trees this was not surprising, but the difference between French and Hungarian, which are the same species, was pronounced: the French oak gave a refined impression to the wine, the Hungarian was somewhat coarse. This emphasizes the effect of growth conditions on the oak: it’s colder in the Hungarian forests and the trees tend to be smaller. This links in to a change in the way tonneliers in France handle their sources – there is much less emphasis on individual forests, and more on the grain of the individual wood. “Within a forest is not a unique location. This is why we at Taransaud have gone our of the forest, we blend forests, the grain is very important, the tighter the grain, the more slowly the wine matures,” says Henri.

I was quite fooled by the blind tasting to test the effects of duration of seasoning. The wood at Taransaud is air dried by exposing staves in the open. A critical element is the need for rain and humidity in the first six months, which is becoming a concern in view of reduced rainfall in some years. The seasoning at first extracts compounds from the oak – this is crucial for reducing bitterness – and then adds other compounds as fungal infections occur; Henri likened this to maturation of cheese. I placed the three samples of Château Phélan Ségur 2010 in order on the assumption that more seasoning gives more subtle results, but this turned out to be too simple. Certainly the sample from 12 month seasoned French oak seemed a bit harsh compared to the others, but the 30 month seasoning seemed to produce a better balanced and more subtle wine than the 55 month seasoning, which had stronger wood spices. A similar test of American oak with the Swanson Vineyards 2010 from Napa Valley gave an overwhelming impression of coconut and dill on the 24 month seasoned sample, still pretty powerful and pungent with 36 months, but finally damped down a little with 48 months. Here longer is better. I was reminded that Paul Draper at Ridge, who uses American oak for the Montebello Cabernet, told me that American oak has a bad reputation not because of its intrinsic properties but because it’s not treated in the same way as French oak (it’s usually sawn instead of split and not air dried).

Blind tasting to test the effects of time spent in barrels also fooled me, as I was working on the assumption that impression of oakiness would be in direct proportion to time in oak (especially allowing for the fact that shorter time in oak would be followed by time in bottle). But Phélan Ségur 2010 showed the most vanillin, and even a touch of coconut, after 8 months in oak, still a touch of vanillin after 16 months in oak, but the cleanest and purest expression of fruits after an intermediate 12 months. However, the 16  months showed overall the most classic and best balance. Clearly this is not a simple matter of absorption into the wine with time, but of more complex interactions. For example, ellagitannins increase with up to 250 days in barrels and then decline.

The percentage of new oak at least was predictable: new oak was quite evident on the nose and palate of a Château Branaire-Ducru example from 2010, with an example that had been matured in second year oak showing more direct and purer fruits; but the blend had more weight, and was softer, rounder, and more complex. An interesting demonstration of classic balance obtained by not going to extremes.

Along the way, a panel of four winemakers commented on their impressions. With a range of different backgrounds (Sandrine Garbay from Yquem, Edouard Labruyère from Jacques Prieur, Peter Sisseck from Dominio de Pingus, and Stephan von Neipperg from Château Canon-la-Gaffelière), it was not surprising that their opinions differed. In a demonstration of how individual palates can agree or disagree, I was interested to see that there was one winemaker with whom I agreed on everything, one with whom I disagreed on everything, and two who were in between. I know whose wine I’m buying in the future.