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.