Sediments, sulphur and closure quality are key to reducing the risk of premature oxidation in white Burgundy, it was revealed in a London-based seminar this week.
Burgundy’s Hospices de Beaune
The event, entitled “How to make the best Burgundy”, was organsied by the Institute of Masters of Wine, and saw Jasper Morris MW coax the winemaking secrets out of Etienne de Montille of Domaine de Montille; Dominique Lafon of Domaines des Comtes Lafon, Bernard Hervet of Domaine Faiveley and Benjamin Leroux of Domaine Comte Armand.
Beginning with a detailed look at white winemaking, starting from the moment the grapes arrive in the cellar, it became quickly clear that the quality, quantity and handling of the lees is one crucial element to ensuring the longevity of top Chardonnay from the Cote d’Or.
Hence, initially, the discussion centred on the impact of crushing, and the role of pressing and settling, as these processes have a direct impact on the amount and quality of sediment in the juice – a cloudy must filled with fine sediment requires whole bunches, gentle pressing and a light settling.
Etienne de Montille, Dominique Lafon and Benjamin Leroux all said they transfer the grapes straight to pneumatic presses without crushing to yield fine sediments that can be kept during winemaking and maturation.
“It’s a matter of style,” said Lafon. “You get different types of sediments if you crush or don’t crush… but my feeling is that if you don’t crush the grapes you get more elegant flavours.”
However, Bernard Hervet of Domaine Faiveley said he had gone back to an “old school” of winemaking which involved crushing the grapes along with a light settling because he found the incorporation of more solids and phenolics provided a powerful protective influence against oxidation.
“The wines are less pure and show less well for journalists when they are young, but I’m more confident to make them this way after 30 years in Burgundy.”
All the winemakers were agreed however on the importance of retaining a high quantity of sediment in the wines for its anti-oxidative influence, and hence each of them admitted to a light, overnight cold settling of the wines after pressing.
“I definitely keep more lees now, because the phenolics protect the wine against oxidation – I’m convinced this is for the benefit of the wine in the future,” said de Montille.
Similarly, Lafon said he “didn’t like to throw anything away,” confessing to removing only around 100-150 litres of juice from 20 barrels of Chardonnay, or 4,560 litres.
He also said he owned a meter to measure turbidity in his musts, reporting levels up to 700 nephelometric turbidity units (NTU), when winemaking handbooks suggest anything over 150NTU is too dirty.
Despite possessing such an instrument, he said he decides on the amount and type of sediment to keep in his musts by sight.
“You do a settling with your eyes, and there are nice colours and dirty colours – there are things that are yellow and nice from the skin, and others in the bottom, like bits of earth or a bit of sulphur you sprayed that is almost green, and stinky.”
Then, having discussed fermentation temperatures and barrel selection, the issue of lees stirring or battonage was raised.
While once fashionable to regularly stir the lees to produce rounder, richer Chardonnays, today such an approach is regularly cited as one possible contributory cause for premature oxidation seen in white Burgundy from 1996 onwards, and today it is done sparingly.
“We do much less battonage than we used to,” began de Montille.
Agreeing, Leroux added, “We have a long alcoholic fermentation which gives a natural lees stirring but we hardly do any battonage after 2-3 months because it can dissolve oxygen into the wine.”
Nevertheless, he admitted that in 2007, “We did 2-3 battonages during ageing to bring some fatness around the acidity.”
Similarly, Lafon said that 80% of his white wines experience no stirring, “and it’s very rare we do anything after Christmas to the wines.”
Meanwhile, Hervet said that Faiveley agitate the lees by rolling the barrels on wheels once a week before malo-lactic fermentation and once a month after.
As for protecting the wines after fermentation and maturation, an ongoing concern over premature oxidation is encouraging Burgundians to ensure there is a high level of free-sulphur at bottling.
Commenting on this topic, de Montille said, “We do like to bottle with a high level of free Sulphur Dioxide, from 35ppm to 45ppm for village and premier cru.”
He also said he aims for 800-900mg/l of dissolved Carbon Dioxide in his wines to further help protect the wine against oxidation.
Lafon promoted similar levels of free sulphur and CO2, and said of the latter, “850mg/l is perfect, but 900 is when you start feeling it.”
However, he added that his “goal” was “to get almost no dissolved oxygen” in his wine by passing nitrogen through equipment and hoses as well as precisely controlling all stages in the bottling line.