Chablis Diary part 7: a Visit to Domaine Laroche and the Question of Screwcaps

Any visit to Domaine Laroche that starts by seeking guidance from your GPS is doomed to failure: you go round and round a square with no apparent way out that will lead to Laroche. In fact, Laroche headquarters are in an old monastery built between the ninth and thirteenth centuries to which access requires driving through an archway that doesn’t seem wide enough for the car. The best way to get there is actually to park at the Laroche boutique in town, and then someone will show the way though a couple of narrow passage ways to the winery.

LarocheTW With 90 ha, Laroche is one of the largest producers in Chablis. There are 60 ha Chablis, 25 ha premier crus, and three grand crus. The Chablis St. Martin under Domaine Laroche comes from their own 60 ha and is a selection of the best lots. It’s about 70% of total. The other 30% is blended with purchased grapes and named just as Laroche (because it’s not just the domaine) and called only Chablis. You have to look carefully at the labels to distinguish.

The Chablis is all stainless steel with no battonage; premier and grand crus come from assemblage of lots matured in cuve with lots matured in barrique. There’s steady graduation of intensity and power going up the hierarchy. The top wine is the Réserve de l’Obédience, which is based on blind tasting to blend the best lots of Blanchots. My experience in the past has been that this carries a lot more oak than Blanchots or the other premier crus, but sales manager Sandrine Audegond says this it varies according to the vintage. “In the last five years, the oak level has varied from 30 % to 100 % (majority of used oak, however), as a result of the blind tasting.”

I ask whether the style of Chablis in general and Laroche in particular has changed with global warming? “No, not really, if there’s been any change it’s due more to viticulture. If the grapes are ripe, if you have thick skins, you will always have minerality. In Chablis, to be absolutely frank, we have an awful climate, summer can be quite unsettled. The blessing of the place is that we have a long dry period in September,” says Sandrine.

What about Laroche’s much vaunted move to bottling under screwcap? “Michel Laroche was dark red when he saw cork manufacturers because he was fed up with quality,” Sandrine explains. Petit Chablis and Chablis are now under screwcap; premier and grand cru are done under either screwcap or cork, and the buyer can choose. What difference do you see in the development of the wines, I ask. “If you want to keep freshness, keep the screwcap, but you will lose some complexity. If you want to develop very complex character, stay with cork.”

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Experiments at Chateau Margaux: fining, filtration, and closures

You might think that once a wine has gone through alcoholic and malolactic fermentations, and been matured for months in oak barriques, that the die was set. Not a bit of it: the continuing experiments at Chateau Margaux show that there is an effect from every stage of what I suppose you might call finishing procedures. “Once again it is impossible to deny the differences, which is somewhat frightening,” was Paul Pontallier’s comment at the end of the tasting.

Once simply part of the routine of producing red wine, fining has become somewhat of a controversial issue, and is now one of the most obvious differences between Old and New World. When I was discussing Cabernet Sauvignon with producers in the course of researching my book Claret and Cabs,  virtually every producer in Bordeaux told me they fine, and almost all producers in Napa Valley said they avoid fining just like filtration.

Fining was introduced as a procedure to lighten the wine, the traditional process being to add egg whites to the barrel. Albumin protein in the egg whites is positively charged, and so reacts with negatively charged tannins to precipitate them. The conventional argument is that this softens the wine by removing harsh tannins and also polishes it by taking out other components. Critics ask why the egg whites should act only on harsh tannins and take the view that desirable tannins and other components might equally well be affected. And, of course, over the past ten or twenty years, tannins have become much riper so you might well ask whether they still need to be removed. (Most producers who continue to find do use fewer egg whites now than they used to.)

Well, the answer at least in the context of Bordeaux, is absolutely clear: the 2004 Chateau Margaux fined with 6 eggs tasted like a completely different wine from the unfined example. Some people thought they could see a difference on the noses of the two wines, but personally I thought they were indistinguishable (and I am a bit hard put to see why volatile compounds might be removed by fining). But the unfined example had more evident tannic grip, less finesse, and came up just a little shorter on the finish. The fined sample simply gave a distinctly more polished impression, not just because of less tannin, but with a sense of being altogether better rounded. Chateau Margaux as you will find bottles in the shops, by the way, has been fined with 5 egg whites per barrel since 1996.

Filtration seemed to have less effect, as tested by comparing unfiltered Chateau Margaux 1995 with sterile-filtered wine. There was no detectable difference on the nose, and the balance on the palate seemed very similar. The main effect to my mind was that the sterile-filtered example seemed like a slightly older, more developed wine, with a touch of sous bois that was not evident on the unfiltered wine. Most participants preferred the second wine, but that depends somewhat on whether you prefer your wines younger or older. Paul Pontallier felt that the filtered wine had actually deteriorated a little due to a touch of oxidation. I can’t say that I would describe the filtered wine as eviscerated or having lost character as a result of filtration, but I suppose it might be the case that the filtration removed components that protect against oxidation.

The closure trial compared Pavillon Rouge 2002 sealed with natural corks with the same wine sealed under screwcaps. There had also been a trial with synthetic corks, but apparently the results were disastrous, and in relatively short order the wine was spoiled. “It’s a good decision to use screwcaps for white wines that will be drunk in the first six months,” says Paul Pontallier, “and with what I know now I would do the same, but our dilemma is that we want to make wine that will age.” The two wines were quite different: open, round, and fruity under cork, but reserved, backward, and showing more austerity under screwcap. Interestingly, the participants split more or less equally as to which style they preferred.

Chateau Margaux is just about to undertake the construction of a new experimental cellar that will allow them to undertake even more experiments. Among future projects are looking into the properties of individual clones of grape varieties and investigating the effects of different types of pressing. “To my astonishment, many people take the view that, if it is new, it must be better,” says Paul Pontallier, “I admire their optimism, but I feel the need to experiment first.”

An Experiment with Corks and Screwcaps

It’s years since I did a scientific experiment but there is one I would like to see done with corks and screwcaps. It’s quite amazing that even with a more than a decade’s experience of bottling wines under screwcaps, the long term effects of the type of closure remain controversial. One issue that I think should be finally resolved is just what effect exposure to oxygen has on long term maturation.

When the same wine is bottled both under cork and under screwcap, it’s evident within a few months that they develop differently. Most of the comparative tastings that I have done have been with white wines, where the usual difference is that wine under screwcap retains brighter fruits with more evident freshness. Preferences are usually split at such tastings between the bottlings: some people prefer the fresh, young style of screwcaps, while others find more complexity in the greater development of the wine under cork.

When I was out in New Zealand and Australia earlier this year, I had several opportunities to compare older red wines that had been bottled under both types of closure. The results were completely consistent.  The wine under screwcap always seemed younger – in a blind tasting you might have said by a couple of years – with more primary fruits, whereas the wine under cork showed some development towards more savory, sometimes even tertiary, aromas and flavors. All of these wines were Pinot Noir (mostly from the first few years of this millennium) but I assume the results would be generally true for all red wines. (The tastings are described in more detail in my recent book, In Search of Pinot Noir). This may not be a completely fair comparison, because the reason for the switch to screwcaps was often the terrible condition of the corks available down under. In fact, when there was the opportunity to taste multiple bottles under cork, they often tasted as different from one another as they did from screwcap, an immediate validation of the decision to switch to screwcaps.

So wines under screwcap clearly develop more slowly: the question in my mind is whether they develop in the same way at a slower pace or whether the overall pattern of  development is different, reflecting a different relative timing of the loss of primary fruits and the appearance of tertiary flavors. Among the wines I tasted, when the wines under cork were in perfect condition, I generally preferred them: but that may be because my taste generally runs to older wines. I would be really interested to repeat the comparison in a few years when the screwcap wines have developed further to see which I prefer then.

Anyway, back to the experiment. The difference between screwcaps and corks is the rate with which oxygen gets into the bottle. It can be close to zero for screwcaps: in fact, there have been problems involving reduction for wines bottled under screwcap, just as damaging in their way as problems with oxidation for wines with faulty corks. Sulfur levels need to be reduced when bottling under screwcap and it may take a while to establish the most appropriate levels for wines intended for any aging. The very best corks (defined operationally as the tightest) have very low oxygenation levels close to those of screwcaps. But the unanswered question is whether you do actually need some level of oxygen exposure; for corks this comes from the supposed “breathing” of the cork; for screwcaps it could come in the future from liners with defined rates for passage of oxygen.

So the experiment I want to do is to determine definitively whether the difference between corks and screwcaps is solely due to oxygen exposure. It is very simple in principle. Bottle a (red) wine under both cork and screwcap. Take bottles with each type of closure and keep one set in normal cellar conditions (cool, dark, humid). Put the other set under identical conditions but in an atmosphere of nitrogen. Then see whether the wines with cork and screwcap closures develop in exactly the same way under nitrogen (which is what you would expect if oxygen is the sole relevant factor). And of course see what differences emerge with and between the wines in the normal cellar. All that’s required is a cellar filled with nitrogen (and I suppose a means of retrieving bottles for periodic testing). Then finally we would know the answer instead of speculating and arguing about it.