Monday, September 30, 2013

What a difference some Oak makes??

I started my business about two years ago with the vision to help smaller and medium sized producers with their marketing and to grow their brands and sales. My passion has always been brand building and growing the perception of brands and I guess to a certain extent always wanted to branch outside of the wine industry. The first challenge though is to grow my wine business with a solid foundation before expanding too much. However, I started talking to a barrel cooperage from the Cognac region, Tonnellerie Baron, who was looking for representation in South Africa. I have always worked with the finished product, but this was an opportunity to also be involved with the actual winemaking process.

During September I went to visit Tonnellerie Baron in Bordeaux to learn more about the cooperage, but more importantly to also learn more about the actual barrel and the producers using it in Bordeaux. This was my first time in Bordeaux and I was excited to visit the region and see some of the producers that I only read about. In hindsight, I probably experienced Bordeaux in a way that very few South Africans ever have and I know this was a wonderful privilege.

Day 1: Visiting Tonnellerie Baron and seeing the facility where all the barrels are made. They select their own oak and bring the big oak to the cooperage where they start the whole process from scratch in their own sawmill. The quality of the barrels start with the selection of the best Oak and they are hands-on from start to finish. Tonnellerie Baron was established in the 1870’s as a supplier to the big Cognac producers, but grew their business to also supply the best Chateaux and producers all over France and other Top wine producing regions.  The whole system of machinery and layout of the cooperage was designed by one of the owners, Nicolas, an engineer by trade. Everything was custom designed to suit their needs and to optimise the cooperage and produce the best barrels every year.

Day 2: Tasting Left Bank Bordeaux
Visiting the Chateaux’s and having the opportunity to taste the 2012 vintage from barrels with the winemakers were absolutely amazing. The experience to visit these Estates, most not really open to the public for tasting, is difficult to put in words. The Chateaux's in the Medoc is impressive with amazing buildings and architecture. We tasted the 2012 vintage at the following Chateaux’s:
Chateaux Kirwan – Margaux
Chateaux du Tertre –Margaux
Chateaux Clerc Milon – Pauillac
Chateaux Du Pez – Saint Julien
Chateaux Branaire-Ducru: Saint Julien
Chateaux Gruaud-Larose: Saint Julien
Chateaux Kirwan

Chateaux du Tertre

Chateaux Du Pez
Chateaux Gruaud Larose

Day 2: Tasting Right Bank
The morning started with a barrel tasting at Chateaux Soutard. The twist here was that we had a blind tasting of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon from eight different coopers, with the coopers present. The wines were lined up next to each other, the same wine but from the different barrels. I have never been involved in something like this so it was quite overwhelming, but such an amazing experience. The previous day we tasted Left Bank which is mainly Cabernet Sauvignon. Here we tasted Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon from the Right Bank from younger and older vines in different flights, twenty eight wines in total. It was very clear how superior the Merlot from St Emilion was to the Cabernet Sauvignon from this region. They dont just talk terroir they actually live and breath it...unlike us.

We tasted the 2012 wines from Chateaux Soutard with the other cooperages of which almost everyone is selling barrels in South Africa. I was familiar with most of the coopers represented there, but to taste the wines blind and in such an environment was very new to me and also extremely educational.
The afternoon we went to taste at Chateaux Faugeres which also exposed me to such an amazing proof of how strict the AOC really is. They had to build the new, very impressive and modern cellar for Chateaux Faugeres because the cellar was on the other side of the border in another Appelation and they cannot make the wine in that cellar from the grapes grown on the other side of the border.
Lastly we visited Chateaux La Conseillante in Pomerol, an old family estate since 1871 with only twelve hectares. The current winemaker is the son, Jean-Michel, and it was great to still see old families surviving the tough challenges. Again it was so eye opening to see the difference in the wines from St Emilion to Pomerol and hearing how the winemakers not only talk terroir but actually DO it. Pauline, Marketing and Sales Manager for Tonnellerie Baron, quickly informed me that La Conseillante is one of the Top and esteemed producers in Pomerol. The wines proved it and just talking with Jean-Michel about their wines and the family heritage gave me goosebumps. It also reminded me that we are very lucky to have some very old family owned Estates in South Africa and that we should do what we can to make sure we don't lose it!

Chateaux Soutard

Chateaux Faugeres
These vineyards are dividing the Appelation

St.Emilion City
St. Emilion
This experience definitely proved to me the effect the barrels have on the wine and the variation in quality of the same wine from different coopers. It is extremely important for the winemakers to make sure they are working with and using the right barrels for their style of wine and their terroir.

It has also confirmed my belief that South Africa has a long way to go in understanding our terroir and regions/appellations. We don’t yet have a true identity in our wines and many producers are just trying to push as much volume out of their cellars into the local and export markets as possible losing their USP.
Rather than focusing on the quality and distinction of their wines and drive up their price through the old economic principle of supply and demand. It’s basic, really elementary yet we don’t get it right. If you only have dry land bushvine vineyards on your property, why do you want to compete in the volume game?? If you don’t have Sauvignon Blanc on your property why do you want to go and buy in the wine from elsewhere just to have one in your range?

Another interesting fact was the age of most vineyards ranging from young to over 70 years. There are a couple of South African winemakers and Estates starting to really work with and identifying their older vineyards, but are we doing enough to promote Estate and Single Vineyard Wines? I do understand that since the nineties we uprooted a lot of vineyards with new plantings that are only now coming into their own being ten to twenty years old. This bodes really well for the future but are we going to use it to our advantage or just go ahead by pushing for as much volume as possible?? How many of our winemakers and viticulturists really know their vineyards like the back of their hand. I remember fondly how Oom Johnny Burger walked into our office one day informing Kobus that he will harvest Chardonnay in 100 days, just by looking at the stage the vineyard was in. That to me is knowing and understanding your terroir and property!!
Chateaux Mouton Rothchild

Chateaux Margaux
New Cellar at Chateaux Cheval Blanc

Working with Tonnellerie Baron will give me the opportunity to also work closer with the winemakers and helping them to give their wines a USP and a different story to tell. Tonnellerie Baron is used in some of the best and most renowned wineries in the world and I want to make sure that they are also helping our producers to make better wines more consistently!!

OXO line design and patented by Tonnellerie Baron
Besides the barrels they are constantly innovating and working on better methods and ideas for the wineries. One such an invention is the OXO-line system which helps a lot with the barrels and that fewer hands are needed in the barrel cellar.

Visit their website to learn more about them