|The Porcheret Method|
|Porcheret's Successor: Roland Masse|
|Prices Soar at Annual Hospices Auction|
A year after his last harvest at the venerable Hospices de Beaune, the veteran Burgundy winemaker bares all in a candid interview
By Per-Henrik Mansson
André Porcheret, now 63, has battled with journalists, French bureaucrats and other winemakers. He defends himself against criticism that he breaks the rules, that he's a trafiquant -- which in France, especially in the context of Burgundy, means someone who uses "creative" methods to make wine. But he fuels the critics with his candor.
For instance, he doesn't deny using commercial tannins in his red wines. The powder, which is made from oak, comes in small plastic bags; Porcheret has used the same Paris supplier for years. He adds the powder to fermenting Pinot Noir juice. It's a perfectly legal process. Most winemakers, however, prefer to keep such tricks of the trade to themselves.
Porcheret openly speaks of controversial techniques for making his wines. In addition to the commercial tannin powder, he regularly adds sugar during fermentation (a process called "chaptalization") and then adds tartaric acid ("acidification") as well. He calls it la méthode Porcheret.
French lawmakers have questioned the legality of some of Porcheret's winemaking techniques. In one tense confrontation, Porcheret faced down the French government and the European Commission in a spat over the 1997 vintage.
At the time, Porcheret was the director of the prestigious Domaine des Hospices de Beaune, which sells its wines each November at the famed auction that bears its name. The event has taken place annually for 140 years.
Porcheret got into trouble after acknowledging that he had added both sugar and tartaric acid to the same cuvées of the '97 red Burgundies at the Hospices de Beaune. The combination of these two techniques was widely understood to be illegal when used in the same batch.
Porcheret could have faced big fines -- even jail time -- if the fraud authorities had ruled that he had broken the law. The Hospices might have fired him. But the government blinked. It approved his methods, and he became a hero.
The Porcheret Method
Wine Spectator: You don't eschew controversy.
Porcheret: Right. Not at all. If you are convinced what you do is for the better, and it gives pleasure, you must do it. There are risks, but you've got to take risks in life.
WS: You're "Mr. Insider" [with nearly 50 years of working experience]. All these years you knew exactly what was going on in Burgundy.
Porcheret: Yes. If we lacked wine from one appellation, we might add from another.
WS: It was technically illegal.
Porcheret: Nobody made a big deal out of it as long as the goal was to improve the quality. ... [At Clerget] we had some wines aging in barrel, and often we used some of that wine in our younger wines. I assure you, we didn't harm the sauce.
WS: What about acidifying wines?
Porcheret: Honestly, we didn't ask ourselves too many questions. We simply tried to make the wine as clean as possible. That's all.
WS: How does it work?
Porcheret: I don't want to make jam. So, I harvest my grapes when they reach a maturity of around 11.5 to 12 percent potential alcohol. If you then have to add sugar, it doesn't bother me.
WS: And then you also acidify. It's your method; it's now well-known. But what I don't understand is this: If you harvest at 11.5 percent potential alcohol, then you ought to have grapes of good natural acidity. So if I understand the method, it's because you chaptalize that you must also add tartaric acid. In fact, you must balance the chaptalization.
Porcheret: I harvest at 11.5 percent because I don't want to work with dead fruit. I want fresh fruit. When you bite into an apple, it must taste crunchy. You have to harvest when the grapes are at 11.5 to 12 percent. Why wait till they become raisiny?
WS: You feel they've reached full maturity. But you then chaptalize, and to balance the chaptalization, you then acidify.
WS: And the tannins -- you buy them?
Porcheret: Yes, of course.
WS: And you add them to the wines.
Porcheret: It's not systematic. The dose will depend on the quality of the grapes. We decide how much to add during the vinification. We only add a bit of tannins after a tasting. It's all well thought out.
WS: But how does it affect the wine? Does it make good wine?
Porcheret: Yes. I add the tannins so the wine will hold, so it won't fall apart. I don't want my wines to taste tired two years after the harvest.
WS: Why does one have to add tannins?
Porcheret: I really add little tannin. But I add these oak tannins because I put my wine in new oak. Before using the new oak barrels, I like to take away the heavy tannins [of the oak barrels]. I absolutely don't want these tannins, which can make the wines taste of wood planks, so I add finer tannins.
WS: But how do you eliminate these heavy wood tannins in the barrels?
Porcheret: You can eliminate the heavy tannins very easily. You take a handful of large-grain salt and mix it with boiling water for three to four hours inside the barrel. It makes for great cleaning.
After adding tannins, you get the impression in the mouth of a wine that is more complete. I feel that if you add these tannins, the structure of the wine is better. It will age better. The wine has a better color.
WS: And these tannins -- they stay in the wine?
Porcheret: Of course, they tend to go away as the wine ages.
WS: But don't these tannins give the wine a different tannic quality than the tannins provided naturally from the barrel?
Porcheret: Yes. If the dose is too large, it's no longer wine. It becomes wood juice.
WS: How much tannin do you add?
Porcheret: Five to 8 grams [of tannin powder] per hectoliter of wine. It can go up to 12 grams. As I said, I prefer these selected, finer tannins to the heavier wood tannins.