There’s More Than One Way to Make Coq au Vin

Although I’m lucky to be able to interview individual winemakers or managers of wine estates, it’s unusual to sit around a table with a group of them to discuss their individual winemaking philosophies and techniques.  You learn very quickly that, just as there are multiple ways to cook a chicken, there’s more than one way to make great wine.

I had the unique opportunity to sit with three Bordeaux producers, all of whom make excellent wine, and listen to their varied approaches to winemaking when they were visiting Boston last month.  Nicolas de Baillencourt of Château Gazin in Pomerol, Daniel Cathiard of Château Smith Haut Lafitte in Pessac-Lèognan, and Patrick Maroteaux of Château Branaire Ducru in St. Julien were representing Les Cinq, a group of five relatively new owners or managers of Bordeaux châteaux who have upgraded and invigorated their properties and have joined forces to market their wines.  They and the two others, Alfred Tesseron of Pauillac’s Château Pontet Canet, and Stephan von Neipperg of Château Canon La Gaffelière in St. Emilion, have all either purchased their properties or assumed control of the family estate within the last two decades.

The three came from different lines of work before entering the wine business.  Maroteaux, who trained as an economist, was the head of one of France’s largest sugar companies.  (Cathiard joked that his former colleagues must be very upset with him since the need for chapitalization–the addition of sugar to the fermenting juice–has been rare in Bordeaux in the last decade because the weather has been warm enough to ripen the grapes adequately).  Cathiard also had training in economics and developed a chain of sporting good stores–he was on the French Olympic ski team with Jean Claude Killy–and a chain of supermarkets.  De Baillencourt had a career in public relations before becoming director of the family estate, Château Gazin, in 1990, upon the retirement of his father.

The group has worked well together over the years, despite the competitive nature of the business and the strong egos involved.  Their success is due in part to their geographic diversity (no two are in the same appellation) and a certain pragmatic realization that they are in this together and share common challenges.  It helps that–by all accounts–each of their properties have made enormous improvements in their wines since these managers have taken control.

The lively, sometimes heated, and often humorous discussion started with a simple question: how do you ferment your wines?  De Baillencourt insisted that traditional concrete tanks were the best vehicle because their thick walls acted as excellent insulation and prevented “thermal shock” or rapid changes in temperature.  Plus they were easy and inexpensive to maintain.  He felt that the only advantage of barrels was that they made for a picturesque vat room.  Daniel Cathiard disagreed, noting that oak barrels, although a “nightmare” to maintain (and an expensive one at that), allowed for a beneficial slight oxidation of the wines.  Maroteaux disagreed with both, voicing his preference for stainless steel because of its cleanliness and ease of temperature control.  De Baillencourt’s quick wit appeared as he noted, “banks like stainless steel because they have something to repossess if necessary.”

I expected to hear a discussion (and perhaps a disagreement) about barrel aging that would touch on subjects such as the level of “toast” of the barrel, the time the wine spent in barrel, and whether the oak should be new or old.  But what I heard was none of that.  They all agreed as though it was obvious (which to me it is) that too much oak aging overwhelms the wine and obliterates the regional distinctiveness or sense of terroir.

The disagreement that did arise centered on cooperage–who made the barrel.  Cathiard, always concerned about the details, employs his own cooper for the 800 barrels a year he needs at Smith Haut Lafitte.  The cooper selects the wood in the forest and dries it for two years at the château.  Cathiard is skeptical about the veracity of commercial coopers regarding the origin of the oak.  Does it really come from where they say it does?  De Baillencourt, who, like most of the Bordelais, uses a variety of commercial coopers, clearly acknowledged the potential for misrepresentation when he noted that if you add up all the barrels made from oak that alledgedly came from France’s famous Troncais forest, you would find that the land wound have been deforested decades ago.  De Baillencourt insists that using a variety of coopers “spreads the risk” and maintains consistency.  He inspects the barrels upon arrival at Château Gazin by washing them with hot water and then tasting the water to assess the quality and integrity of the oak.  Maroteaux at Branaire takes the approach of relying on one commercial cooper who verifies all the steps from sourcing in the forest to drying the staves to assembling and toasting the barrel.

The opposing views that were voiced regarding assemblage–putting the blend together–surprised me.  The beauty of Bordeaux is that, unlike Burgundy with its monovarietal Pinot Noir for red wine, it is a blended wine made from up to six varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Malbec and Carmenere.

I’m certain that the origin of the Bordeaux blend was motivated by an economic insurance policy–the vinous equivalent of the financial planner’s advice to diversify.  The varieties all have a slightly different growth cycle (for example, Merlot ripens and buds before Cabernet Sauvignon), so that while a spring frost might harm Merlot, Cabernet will survive unscathed.  Similarly, in the fall, rain during harvest might dilute only the Cabernet, since Merlot has already been picked.

Winemakers make separate wine from each of the varieties planted in their vineyards and then blend them to achieve the desired style of wine.  There will be multiple barrels, of varying quality, for each variety.  The winemaker must decide which lots will be used for the grand vin, which for the second label, and which will be sold off in bulk.  Although motivated by the vagaries of nature rather than as a way to make better wine, the blend turns out to be greater than the sum of its parts when the process runs as it should.

De Baillencourt at Gazin makes a preliminary blend in February following the harvest and then adjusts it periodically until achieving a final blend by June.  The blended components then age together for another year or so before bottling.  Maroteaux at Branaire Ducru achieves his final blend after tasting for a few days in February, believing it best to allow the components ‘to marry’ for as long as possible before bottling.  Cathiard keeps all of the vats separate until the last minute and blends only a month or so before bottling at Smith Haut Lafitte.

Although the technical details about barrels, blending and fermentation may be “too much information” for the casual wine drinker, the overall message is simple and important.  There is no “one way” to make superior wine.  Despite the technical differences that divide their approaches (all of which sound reasonable and logical), these châteaux make superb wines because of their dedication and focus.

So, the next time you hear that someone’s wines are great because of this or that type of oak barrel, or some other technical detail, don’t believe it.  It’s not the particular technique that makes great wine, but rather the motivation of the people and their attention to detail. You can make an equally superb coq au vin with either Riesling or Beaujolais if you are willing to take the time.

February 13, 2007