One of the great traditions and delights of wine tasting is sampling from the barrel. I remember two decades ago the first time I went deep into a wine cellar, my sense of smell seemingly heightened by the darkness.
Soon I was almost overwhelmed by a magic combination of fermenting wine, vanilla essence from oak, fruit aromas and the musty feel of high humidity.
Last month I remembered that first journey into darkness when I visited the cellars of Camille Giroud, a negociant and winemaker in Beaune, the wine capital of Burgundy. Dijon is the actual regional capital but it does not have the passion or beauty of Beaune, a city of about 30,00 souls.
Negociants buy wine and grapes from small parcels of land, and store wine in their cellars. These remain at a temperature that ranges between about 14C in winter and 18C in summer and constant 80 per cent humidity – perfect conditions for preserving wine. The key to storing wine is avoiding fluctuations in temperature, and Beaune’s cellars maintain temperatures perfectly.
France’s main wine auction is also held in Beaune in November, at the Hospices de Beaune. It is the country’s main wine charity auction and attracts thousands each year.
I have visited vineyards and cellars in the United States, Spain, Italy, New Zealand, Canada, Australia and Germany. The cellars and buildings of Camille Giroud are far different from the gleaming architectural edifices that proliferate in California and Central Otago. The building, near Beaune’s railway station, is old fashioned and sensible like a farmhouse. The cellars are wonderfully dank, with black cob-web-like fungus dripping from the ceiling. The aromas are intoxicating.
I tasted six of the 2009 wines in barrel. The Beaune premier cru Les Avaux had a funky earthy aroma of mushrooms, combined with a delicate tannic backbone that made me feel lightheaded. My favourite was the Corton Le Clos du Roi grand cru that smelled of chocolate and cherries. The tannic backbone was strong yet silky, suggesting this wine needed at least a decade of cellaring. The aroma was captivating and I wanted to drink the wine on the spot.
An interesting aside: In Australia when tasting from the barrel, any wine left in the glass after tasting is thrown into the swill bucket. In Burgundy, any remaining wine is put back into the barrel because it is perceived as so precious.
My other favourite from the 2009 barrel tasting was the Latricieres-Chambertin grand cru. It tasted of cherries, plums and candied orange peel, yet the tannins were so soft they felt like a silken glove guiding the palate, rather than a hard wooden structure. The length was long and appealing. A superb wine.
* “Nothing like wine straight from the barrel” in China Daily, 8 January 2011, page 12.