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Great Wines With No New Barrels

Posted: Apr 23, 2007 12:04pm ET

I was looking through one of my notebooks this morning for something. It was the same set of notes that I took during my trip to Bordeaux this spring to taste 2006 from barrel.  And I saw written down on one of the pages: "You don’t need new barrels to make great wine.”

What? Did I read my handwriting right? That can’t be. All great wines have a lot of new barrel maturation. No?

Well. No. The quote above came from a dinner with Denis Durantou of Pomerol’s L’Église Clinet, at the Bordeaux hotel Les Sources de Caudalie. I think that Denis is one of the most talented growers and winemakers in Bordeaux. He hand-makes his wine on his small estate in the heart of Pomerol, and his reds are consistently some of the best in the region.

Anyway, he brought a bottle of 1961 L’Église Clinet to the dinner that was a knockout. It was very Port-like, dark garnet-colored with a ruby center. It was super aromatic with blackberries, violets, brown sugar and just a hint of tobacco. The palate was full and very intensely flavored with masses of fruit and velvety tannins. What a wine. I gave it 98 points, non-blind.

And the wine was aged for 18 months in old 225-liter oak barrels. “My relative didn’t have the money to buy new barrels at the time,” Denis said.

In fact, another excellent and more recent L’Église Clinet also never saw new wood – the 1989. I remember, years back, that Denis said that the wine was so outstanding from the beginning that he didn’t want to change the character with the new wood. “I was afraid it might change.”

He would probably do it differently today. In fact, with recent great vintages of L’Église Clinet such as 1998, 2000, and 2005, he used a percentage of new oak to age his reds.

The only thing is that it makes you rethink the necessity of new wood barrels for aging wine.

Interestingly, I had a similar conversation with Burgundy winemaker Laurent Ponsot in his cellar in Morey-St.-Denis about a week after I saw Denis. Ponsot said that he didn’t want anything to do with new oak barrels. “I want my wines to taste of their grapes, not wood,” he said.

May be it’s an oversimplification, or better a provocation, to say that to me, but I think it’s something to think about. The 1961 L’Église Clinet was a superlative wine, and Ponsot’s 2005s I tasted from barrel were fantastic.

Douglas Johnson
Appleton, WI —  April 23, 2007 3:58pm ET
I agree for the most part with Mon. Ponsot. If I wanted to taste wood, I'd suck on an oak branch. A little bit of new wood, perhaps 10 to 15% may be okay for some wines, but too many producers overdo it and mask the natural fruit flavors.
Guus Hateboer
Netherlands —  April 23, 2007 4:01pm ET
Isn't new wood just used to add flavour and soft wood-toned tannins, rather than potential to age? I understood that oak barrels were used to have the wine oxidize in a very limited way through the pores of the oak, which can be achieved by new as well as with old wood. The new wood predominantly adds the vanilla character that so many people love, but the greatness of a wine is already in the wine before it goes into the barrel, whether that barrel is new or not.
John B Vlahos
Cupertino Ca. —  April 23, 2007 5:45pm ET
Inglenook was famous for its cabernet sauvignon and they used the same vats for years and turned out outstanding vintages. In fact their best wines had vat designations and often you would see the same vat designation every few years as the vats were re-used. It may well be that a well seasoned vat adds its own benefitial character to the wine. Does a great grape need oak?
Jim May
Los Angeles —  April 24, 2007 12:53am ET
If M. Pensot indeed wants his wines to "taste of the grapes, not wood", wouldn't that be an argument against any wood at all, i.e. in favor of stainless steel? Or is "old wood" sufficiently mute in its contribution to the final result that it is effectively equivalent to steel (but much more traditional)?

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