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Barrel Making in Burgundy

We’ve written about Burgundian winemaker Dominique Laurent in the past. He has the heart and soul of an artist, the mind of an entrepreneur, and he makes wines that sing.

When Dominique could not find oak barrels that did his grapes justice, he started his own cooperage to produce what are now known as his Magic Casks. Made of staves of oak sourced from France’s renowned national forests, his barrels are 50% thicker than traditional ones. He lets the staves sit outdoors for about three years to cure in the heat and snow of Burgundy; then, after being fashioned into barrels, they are lightly charred. The “toast” must be just right: too light and the barrels will impart green tannins to the wine; too heavy and the overbearing vanilla of New World chardonnays will come to the fore:

Barrels in Burgundy.jpg

Dominique’s wines show hardly any oak character (or if they do, only in the first blush of their youth), but the use of oak futs allows the developing wine to breathe during its élevage — the pre-bottling, in-barrel phase when the hand of man takes grapes and turns them into wine. The result is an almost unique richness and generosity of flavor.

There are few high-tech shortcuts in the manufacturing of barrels. Each one is produced by artisans who sense the particular qualities of each one. The coopers make decisions about fit and toast all along the production process:

Addendum: As regards the use of oak in winemaking — now often replaced by stainless steel tanks or enamel-lined cement vats — the oft-quoted remark of Burgundian winemaker Jean-Marie Guffens-Heynens sums up the state of affairs up well: “There are no over-oaked wines, but there are many under-wined wines.” By which he means that unless grapes are ripe and suffused with the minerals that come from low crop yields and vines with deep roots, a wine will always risk being overwhelmed by the use of new oak barrels, even ones made by Dominique Laurent..

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