Oenologist, agricultural engineer and consultant for wine properties in France and abroad to support them in more qualitative and ecological winemaking and viticulture with the principles of organic and biodynamic methods. Antoine worked the Blancs de Bourgogne in Puligny and today he holds the position of Technical Director of the Picard family properties at the Château de Chassagne Montrachet.
WHAT ARE THE ESSENTIAL CRITERIA FOR CHOOSING THE RIGHT BARREL FOR THE FUTURE WINE?
When I advise a winemaker, there is no ideal barrel to start with. It is above all essential to understand the style of the winemaker and where he wishes to take his wines. After that, it is true that I have an approach where I seek to highlight the notions of elegance and finesse rather than power or concentration. As I work in different vineyards such as Bordeaux, the south of France and even abroad where we spontaneously have wines with more power, my objective in the vineyard and in the ageing is to balance this power. This is why the barrel must be at the service of the wine to preserve the fruitiness, aromatic tension and freshness on the palate.
HOW HAVE THESE EFFECTS EVOLVED WITH CLIMATE CHANGE?
The first effect is the decline of a trend where the use of wood and strong toasting had been widely used, especially in Bordeaux. The second effect is the adaptation of ageing to the consequences of global warming on the composition of the grapes and the balance of the wines.
Global warming is key for the future. Compared to 20 years ago, we are harvesting grapes with more advanced stem ripeness and therefore the matrix of the wine is different. The wine has less acidity and more ripe tannins. For the reds, we have grapes that exhibit very mature phenolic maturity, particularly in terms of tannins, but the risk is to lose aromatic freshness. I use certain biodynamic practices to achieve this result, that is, to improve the synchronization of technological and phenolic ripeness. Conversely, by pushing grape varieties such as Merlot to strong maturities, we end up with excessive degrees above 14.5% and this harms the balance and the notion of harmony. This is not desirable in the long run.
As for ageing in oak barrels, these more advanced maturities require adapting the work with the barrels. We have less need to polish the tannin with significant oxygen inputs and structuring tannins than in the past. This is especially true for whites.
For example, Chardonnay in Burgundy has different balances from 30 years ago. We observe rising pH and strong skin maturities. It is clear that today it is no longer difficult to ripen Chardonnay in Burgundy. I think we need to rethink barrel ageing with the succession of the last hot vintages that we have had in Burgundy on the whites and the ageing in the traditional 228-liter Burgundy pièce is to be questioned.
WHAT TYPE OF TOASTING SHOULD YOU CHOOSE FOR YOUR WINE?
I come from the world of white wines, and no doubt by deformation, I enjoy making reds that “taste like white”. That is to say, red wines in which the qualities of transparency, crystalline flavor and minerality are present from youth, and not masked by an overabundant tannic structure. To achieve this, I like to work with barrels that have toasts quite close to those used for the whites: light in terms of intensity and temperature, but still long enough toasting to start deep in the wood. This involves excellent quality drying of the wood by the cooperage, especially for Burgundian pièces which are more rounded than Bordeaux barrels, so that it does not blister when heated and bent. I tend to favor these relatively light toasts for Pinot Noir, which at the same time preserve the fruit and support this dimension of freshness.
TO MAKE A GREAT WINE, IS IT NECESSARY TO AGE IN BARRELS?
This is a question that all winegrowers must ask themselves. The ripening conditions of the grapes, the balance linked to the hot vintages we have with global warming, require a review of wineries’ barrel ageing programs. All the wine and oak parameters must be reviewed by the winemaker to adapt to global warming and preserve freshness. This involves the type of wood, the container, toasting style, length of wine maturation in the vessel and size of vessel, and being open to questioning usual practices. I’m a big believer in mixing barrels with other types of containers, bigger to achieve that balance.
For the reds, most of the grape varieties clearly benefit from ageing on wood in the first part, and for low-tannic grape varieties such as Pinot Noir. The question arises on the second part of long maturing. Today, with global warming, I like to carry out the first part of the ageing in barrels, then to rack the wines and place them in larger containers under wood such as, for example, the foudre. It is a container that has been kept in other parts of the world such as Austria or Italy. This allows it to skate more slowly, with more delicacy and precision, to take it further into finesse. This practice corresponds very well to the last hot vintages.
Regarding whites, the question arises in the same way, knowing that today there are examples of very great whites aged only in stainless steel vats, such as Riesling from Germany, Luxembourg or Mosel for example. I have a philosophy quite close to that of maturing for the reds. I tend to shorten the maturing times in 225/228 liters while keeping a long period on the lees between 18 and 24 months. But to do this, we must limit the oxygen intake and for that, the mass effect of a large container such as a 500 liters is interesting.
At the same time, certain winemakers are also exploring ageing in amphorae, which allow us to work on oxygen intake without wood intake. This technique is interesting, but we deprive ourselves of the polyphenol intake of the oak barrel, which is interesting if we manage to manage it without it becoming caricature.
WHAT WOULD BE THE IDEAL CONTAINERS?
On the ageing of whites, we try to limit the oxygen uptake. For this we have 3 levers. First, lower the proportion of new barrels. However, to have a qualitative rotation of the barrels it is sometimes difficult to vary this data. The second lever is the size of the barrel. Today I do a lot of testing with containers larger than the traditional 228 liter pièce. It can be foudres, demi-muids, 500 liters, which work very well with the whites, although they can pose practical problems of handling and size in the cellar. On the other hand, the 350 liters that can be used for intermediate rearing have the advantage of handling like 228-liter pièces. Their lower surface-to-volume ratio allows slower ageing compared to wood uptake and oxygen transfer. The third lever is the material of the containers. We have the traditional oak barrel and today the different types of amphorae, concrete eggs for example, are alternatives to consider, in white as in red.
Antoine Lepetit de la Bigne
Interview conducted by Marie-Pierre Dardouillet @Cépagescommunication for Cadus – 2020