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Dionysus Unbound

By |  December 18 2010

Granted, there are numerous French tonnelleries, but only a dozen are worlddominant. There are various oak forests, too, but just a few-Allier, Limousin, Nevers, Troncais, Vosges-dominate, and one could be forgiven for asking how many trees remain there, for all the barrels claiming such provenance in the past 30 years (less than half enough time for a new oak to reach barrel proportions). Nonetheless, if it’s true that these enhance taste-as throngs of wine growers who routinely shell out ¤400-600 per new barrique must believe-then to that extent at least, wines worldwide share some barriqueborne, uniquely barrique traits.

To be sure, the barrique’s long run had honorable origins. Given how many growers choose their grapes based on Bordeaux’s or Burgundy’s prestige, it’s small wonder the barrel shape and size of these most prestigious regions was favored. Only barriques were thought good enough for the best, even if it was hard to say how much their paradigmatic use in Bordeaux and Burgundy reflected inertia or the adoption of a size one man could roll and stack, rather than their influence on texture and taste. Tidings of barrique virtue were spread by an emerging, world-traveling cast of oenologues, and with them not just an aura of authority but quite literally one of vanilla, caramel, toast, resin, and fusil oils. (The most influential enologist of the past quarter-century, Michel Rolland was said to have opined that new barriques were virtually perfect vessels for élevage… apart from their taste.)

Macônnais vigneron Jean-Marie Guffens cunningly quipped that "a wine can take as much new oak as it does not need," but his double-edged wit failed to cut it with legions of vintners whose wines’ nearest resemblance to great Bordeaux or Burgundy was precisely that prestigious whiff of wood, which for many consumers, too, became a marker of quality, of which a wine had as much as it needed to make an impact. One could almost say the barrique was the one size thought to fit all-save for the concurrent rise and ubiquity of its doppelgänger, stainless steel. Between them, these two luxuries exercised near tyranny, and a bipolar disorder in élevage stalked many cellars. (Wine growers and critics love spurious either/ ors.2) Take southern France, where many modestly priced cuvées rendered in tank foundered on a reductive rawness or stink of young Syrah, Mourvèdre,

or Carignan. Meanwhile, Grenache grotesquely soaked up the taste of wood, while breathing in too much air at the same time. Oceans of southern French wines suffered from lack of choice, and not only because vintners had blinders.

Cleanliness is, with good reason, a fetish among top-notch practitioners; and if, for example, a Languedoc grower sought clean foudres of 1,000 liters or more, good luck finding them! New ones weren’t being built for the most part, and would cost too much anyway, unless you could sell your wine at a price that, until recently, even a Châteauneuf did not command. Sylvain Fadat of Domaine l’Aupilhac was among those who counted themselves lucky to pick up a few old foudres from Alsace domaines, which cast off one or two each decade. In Alsace itself, there was not much toying with barriques but rampant defection to stainless steel ("inoxification"). And sadly, too many Alsatians (Germans and Austrians, too) who professed a desire to be rid of "stinky old foudres" were accurately describing the state into which they had let theirs decline.

The barrique and its shiny cohort are far from dead, but among the most profound changes in the world of wine this decade is the breaking of their shackles, as large barrels and concrete- a new generation, flexibly molded and sophisticatedly sealed-reemerge.

Lowly concrete was once scorned by anyone who could afford better, but now we have not just boxes but "eggs," cylinders, and free-form tanks that retain cement’s insular virtues but offer distinct options in interface between wine, lees, and air. Who would have imagined a decade ago that prestigious tonneliers would be crafting not just ever-more demi-muids (600 liters), but foudres of 1,000 liters or more? Or that Austrian Franz Stockinger’s expensive large barrels from Manhartsberg oak, from a toehold in Roussillon, would ripple throughout France? Defections from barrique or steel to large-format and concrete are routine now, and less well-off growers can buy secondhand.

Even in Burgundy, barrels of 350-600 liters are gaining ground-and not just for Chardonnay. Remy Jobard’s delight in the freshness and precision conveyed to his Meursaults by alternative barrels has led to a 2009 Charmes that saw only foudre. Amphorae, chestnut, acacia… their revivals, too, deserve scrutiny. "To each wine, its vessel; to each grower, the freedom to choose!" is a good slogan for the new century.

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