The Intricacies of Barrel Ageing
In a time when we have access to clean, easy to use, stainless steel containers, why continue to use small wooden barrels? French oak, or let us say European oak, because of its relatively loose fibers, allows the wine to breathe. A slow but continuous inflow of oxygen penetrates the wood and the wine, allowing it to mature gracefully.
As a reminder, aging Pinot Noir generally involves malolactic fermentation in barrel. This triggers production of CO2 and reductive (foul) aromas, that are progressively mitigated by a regular influx of oxygen, which also helps stabilize and round out the tannins. This slow addition of oxygen is very difficult to replicate in a closed stainless steel tank. The newer the wood, the more exchange there is.
Of course, with new barrels comes the associated aromas and tannins. This can overtake the body of the wine, which is why, generally-speaking, 100% new wood is not desirable in a wine. This side effect has now become dominant in the view of the public and many wine professionals, but for us, flavor and tannic structure are not the primary reason for the use of new barrels.
We believe new barrels should have a relatively low impact on the wine, but are used in large part to preserve its integrity. Toasting of the barrels should be kept at low intensity, even though high toast tends to taste better at the beginning; at the end of élevage (time in barrel), the impact will be higher, and much more difficult to integrate.
Méo-Camuzet has developed a relationship with François Frères in St Romain, France, where this philosophy is understood. The type of wood is chosen so that a light toasting is absorbed and mitigated into the wine, if the time of élevage is long enough. The tonnellerie allows us to make the barrels under the same conditions for Nicolas-Jay.
It is a great opportunity, as this kind of offering is generally not available in the United States. We are still refining what goes best with each wine, but generally medium to tight grain is used, whereas very tight grain (generally more tannic) seems to go better, not surprisingly, with concentrated cuvées, that can use a bit more time to get ready.
- Jean-Nicolas Méo