I’ve been batting around the idea of returning to France this year to do another vintage. In 2008 I worked for 5 months at Chateau Léoville Las Cases in the Médoc, north of the city of Bordeaux. It was an incredible experience, not only from a winemaking perspective but a social and cultural perspective as well. Simply put, it was a life changing trip, and I’ll always look back at the time I spent and the friends I made there very fondly. So it made me very happy last month when the nice folks at Chateau LLC contacted me to see if I wanted to go for another “tour”. This isn’t the first time they’ve asked me to come back – in 2009 they also asked me. However the paperwork with the French Administration was so complicated and difficult that they decided that my visa wasn’t worth the trouble. Now with my current position with a research organization, it seems the French Government is much happier to have me come as a researcher for a few weeks than a flying winemaker. Really, I couldn’t care less what they want to call me, as long as they call me.
So this had me thinking today about the trip, and the differences between how we make wine here and how they make it in France. Actually, I have no idea how they make it elsewhere in France – I’m talking about how they make it in Bordeaux, and even more specifically how they make it in a 2nd growth Chateau in the Medoc. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not going to tell you they use some crazy alien yeast or anything like that. I assure you Bordeaux oenologues (Rolland and Boissenot included) put their pants on one leg a time. It’s how they approach turning grapes into wine that differs from how we do it here. Their approach is based on scientific method. Like a researcher setting up an experiment, their goal is to eliminate any source of variation. They want every ferment to behave in exactly the same way, and believe me when I say you could set your watch to their ferments’ progress. I can understand why they go to these measures as well: they’re protecting their investment. It’s easy to see when you look at the money involved. 500 tonnes of fruit from one of the bigger chateaus we’ll say, so that’s about 350000L of wine. Now not all of that would end up in the grand cru wine, most Chateaus have at least one if not two separate labels to bleed off there lesser juice (Mouton’s third is actually a classified growth – d’Armalihac). So let’s just say that between all their different labels a classified growth might get $70 or $80AUD per bottle. So would anyone out there like to do that quick calculation for me: 350000 x 80 = ? Yeah, it’s a big number. While this alone is a compelling reason, it’s probably not the biggest one. I recon the main reason for this approach is to show of the Chateau’s terroir (I can’t resist italicising that word every time I write it). I remember one day while working in the cuvier one of the cellarhands had done something rather dumb and one of the Directors shook his head and muttered under his breath to me “it’s a good thing we have terroir eh?” This scientific approach they take to making their product is designed to minimize the influence of the winemaker. All the wines see the same treatment and the same processes at the same time during the ferment. Now from a winemaking perspective this very boring and unexciting, but it accomplishes its goal in allowing the fruit to express itself to a maximum, and lets them have their terroir.
Now is this the kind of thing that we should be doing here? Don’t know the answer to that one. With the push over the past few years for producers to let the fruit speak more for itself (ie. less new oak, lower alcohol levels, etc.) and with the Scarce Earth initiative happening here in McLaren Vale this seems to be a movement that shows no sign of slowing down. Taking a page out of the Bordeaux playbook might not be that bad an idea.