Pouillé-sur-Cher, Touraine (Loire)
I visited Didier Barrouillet recently in his home outside Pouillé to have his opinion about juice & wine analysis. We know Didier retired from his busy life as a winemaker and vineyard manager at Clos Roche Blanche but he keeps conducting analysis tests on juice and wines for other winemakers in the area, mainly as a hobby, and I wanted to have his say about this crucial part of the winemaking : keeping a good knowledge on the condition of one's juice or wine. Knowing where one's juice or wine is standing along the vinification process may be strategic, and many winemakers just taste the juice to keep an eye on the situation.
Didier lives in a simple and beautiful single-story farm overlooking the Cher valley, at a close distance from the vineyards he used to tend, further on the plateau, and there's a direct view on a grassy parcel from his windows.
Didier has been doing lab analysis for 30 years, listing data for his juices and wines; he later worked on the side for other winemakers to help pay for the tool used to check the volatile, but mostly he did tests for Clos Roche Blanche. Doing the tests yourself saves a lot of money, you can easily spend 3000 or 4000 € a year for testing your juices, and Didier had the scientific background (mathematics and chemical engineering) that helped him do this work by himself.
Didier received me in the beautiful and well-preserved 17th century farm, the living room with the fireplace makes you feel comfortable at once. That's were he works too, there's the computer and also the microscope for the bacteria counting.
Asked about the winemakers who conduct very few testings of their juices, if any, Didier says that the vignerons in general (and not only the ones that are into natural wine) tend to not be enough checking their juices and wines. And oddly it begins with setting with accuracy the harvest date, which he says can only be done through a well-conducted testing of the grape condition. This is the most important and strategic time for the wine, and the rest will just be follow-up and checking that the wine is on the right tracks. He often see vignerons deciding of the picking date by casually tasting the grapes, which is not precise at all, especially that they'll tend to choose the grapes that stand out and look beautiful when they walk along the rows. The thing is, the maturity is extremely diverse in a parcel, and in a given row you have the grapes that hang in the full light, the ones that stay in the shadow most of the day, plus in a single bunch you have also grapes that are less ripe than others.
What you need to do, he says, is do an analytical follow-up for at least 3 weeks, and calculating the start of these tests from the 90-100 days after blossoming. Usually he starts doing the tests 3 weeks before the theoretical date, once a week. The golden rule is have the sample-taking for the grapes always done by the same person, so as if somehow imperfect, it'll be repeatedly done on the same frame by a person who knows the parcels and applies the same sampling process. Writing down everything counts too, time and data : With the notes taken from the annalytical results and later on the wine evolution there will be a rich material in the long term to gather intelligence on the optimum picking conditions.
Speaking of what has to be checked, Didier says that you have to go beyond measuring alcohol and sugar which is not very interesting by itself. The wine can make a potential of 10,5 % or 11 % and that's fine for him if it's ripe otherwise, and conversely it's not because you reach 13,5 % that the juice is ripe. In short, you have to check the sugar, the total acidity and the pH. His own modus operandi is to pick 10 bunches in a parcel (split among the ones in the shadow and the sun-exposed ones), which he'll press by hand together. When he set the date for the harvest, the picking has to be conducted swiftly, that's why he & Catherine favored large teams of pickers, so that the bunches are collected on an even ripeness quality.
Of course he also tastes the grapes, he checks the ripeness of the seeds as well as the maturity of the vines, which counts too, the leaves changing their color and tone, same for the stem when time comes. When the vineyard got fertilizers it stays green longer than it should of course, destabilizing the natural balance of the vine's life, and same thing if you use organic fertilizers like nitrogen-strong chicken droppings, especially that there's no regulated limitation on organic fertilizers. The drawback with nitrogen fertilizers is that they make the grapes rot easily.
But speaking of the lab checks one thing is sure, measuring the pH is very important and alas few winemakers do it. Didier says that he isn't for adding SO2 in the juice but there's an exception : when the pH is very high. If you have a pH at 3.5 in the grape juice there's a danger, because the higher the pH, the happier the bacteria (the acetic-acid as well as the lactic-acid ones) will be. The critical threshold is 3.3 for the pH, under that ceiling you will not have fermentation issues. The yeast don't care with the pH, low or high, but the risk is with the bacteria which will mess the juice and also finish the malolactic right away, too early.
In this room next to the living room he has several tools to check the pH, the acidity, the volatile and the alcohol level, some of these tools are quite old but they work well just the same. Except for a few times he never went to a lab for his juice or wine tests, and he considers winemakers should learn to these lab work themselves. He still occasionally brings a wine sample to a wine lab for analysis, for example for protein counting, as he can say if there are proteins in a given wine but not how much. Proteins can yield protein breakage which turns a wine cloudy, it's not changing overtly the organoleptics of a wine but it's not nice. I asked about the visual defect in the wine known in French as "la graisse (the fat), which makes also the wine looking greasy and turbid, but that's another thing, he says, it has to do with the lactic acid bacteria going astray, sort of, and this default is not only visual, the taste of the wine is altered too, making it fat and weak. When it happens already bottled it's too late but before bottling you can correct that by moving the wine around in the vat or the barrel.
While it's not well understood how this "fat" turbidity happens, Didier says it wouldn't have happened in the first place if there had been 1,5 gram of SO2 added in the wine right after the malolactic. Even if some there's some residual sugar by then, the so2 will not prevent the yeast from finishing their job. He says anyway that the yeast produce so2 themselves, and that's why he isn't opposed to adding so2 during the vinification if needed. By the way some yeast can produce as much as 150 mg/liter of "indigenous" so2, but usually it's more like 30 or 40 mg. He says that while the free SO2 (which is the only potent one against the bacteria) ends up vanishing, the total so2 remains the same and this "combined" so2 is responsible for the unpleasant drying feel in the mouth. Asked about what he thinks about just leaving the wine protected through CO2 and no added SO2, he says that the CO2 protects against oxygen but not against the bacteria, the lactic-acid bacteria prospering without oxygen. But if the sugar is finished, he says it works, there should be no risk of accident and the CO2 could do the job.
Lactic acid bacteria can do other harm in the wine, like triggering a bitter taste, and the problem is you don't see that through a lab test. The other worry with lactic acid bacteria is that when there's still sugar in the wine, they don't keep to doing their "regular task" (the conversion of malic acid to lactic acid) but they go after the sugar as well, something they shouldn't have the opportunity to do if they had started to work after the completion of the alcoholic fermentation (which is the "normal" order of things). By going after the lagging sugar they turn it into vinegar. When you watch your wine there are quite a few worries like this one.
Didier says that 4 or 5 years ago they had the Gamay & Sauvignon wines of Clos Roche Blanche screened by a lab for tighter tests during the crucial weeks of the vinification, and they noticed that at some point there were big outbreaks of acetic bacteria for example in the very early stage of the fermentation, an enormous population, while a week later (and without any particular intervention in this regard) this bacteria population had vanished. He says that a fermenting must behaves like the upper soil, there are competing micro-organisms, fungi and bacteria (like in the juice) that build their own weapons to defend themselves or kill their foes. the bacteria make antibiotics and the yeast/fungi make enzymes that will cut the carbon chains of the competing yeast, it's a race in there to seize oxygen, iron, zinc and other essential nutrients. The apparent reason behind the fact that this huge bacteria population had dwindled a week later was that the lactic-acid bacteria had manufactured & released antibiotics to destroy the rival acetic-acid bacteria population and occupy its place.
Didier says that the follow-up of the vinification is very important, this is all about enology, something that tends to be sometimes decried nowadays, he says, adding that it's a science, and for a winemaker not paying attention to this knowledge is akin to a farmer would would follow a program without respecting the science of agronomy. Enology, or the knowledge about the winemaking process, has progressed much along the 20th century, and for example for the malolactic it's only around the time of WW2 that it was fully understood, before that, wine people knew about the timing of this secondary fermentation but they didn't grasp the hows & whys.
Didier says that he sometimes tastes old wines and he remembers having had very old Bordeaux wine from 1910 or 1915 that were still very fresh and on the fruit, and he says the reason was that they were bottled without having gone through the malolactic. People at the time weren't aware of the malolactic and they bottled when the alcoholic fermentation was complete. The wine was probably pretty hard to drink at the time but this helped it stand a century, and by the early 21st century it was tasting well. Another thing that helped is that in the early 20th century the grapes were picked barely ripe, yielding very acidic wines.
Pictured above is a bottle he got recently and which he plans to open one of these days
Didier says that there's not only competition and fight between bacteria of different families, but also between yeast strains. Yeast are aerobic, meaning they need oxygen to prosper and breed, while lactic-acid bacteria are anaerobic, which means that they don't need oxygen, on the contrary it would prevent them to grow. The acetic acid bacteria, on the other hand, are aerobic and need oxygen, that's why winemakers try to vinify as much as possible without oxygen "spoiling" the juice, that's because these bacteria would prosper.
Asked about the adding of SO2 at the beginning on the juice, something many winemakers do, Didier says that it doesn't exterminate all the bacteria but it indeed works. There's one thing he doesn't agree with, it's the idea that by doing this you also get rid of the wrong yeast and keep the good yeast : he considers it's not true. Speaking further about the adding of commercial yeast on the juice, something he did at the beginning at CRB when the domaine was not yet organic, Didier says that the selected yeast have long been engineered to be killer-yeast, meaning they're kind of designed to kill-and-replace the indigenous yeast, and when you use these selected yeast yopui can eschew the SO2 adding at this stage (but commercial wineries have many more opportinities to add so2 along the vinification anyway). Selected yeast do a quick job that doesn't stall, and smart conventional winemakers can bring down the fermentation temperature in order to get more refined aromas, considering that unlike indigenous yeast they know that these yeast will finish the job.
Didier himself doesn't condone the use of lab yeast because they're alien to the terroir of the wine, the wild yeast being the only ones that can really convey the terroir-connected truthy of the wine. Wild yeast may be capricious and prone top stalling and taking their time, at the end they'll make a wine that wholly reflects the local terroir conditions. If you add dry yeast, he says, the only way to respect this terroir would be to do your own selection of yeast from the wild yeast you deal with, and keep a frozen reserve for your future fermentation, like some sort of dried-up pied de cuve. This might be useful to secure the end of the fermentations, especially for the whites which he concedes are sluggish year after year in facilities relying on indigenous yeast.
Thinking about the Brett character in certain wines which I think has been a fashionable thing to spot in the tasting milieu, I ask Didier about his opinion on the issue, are there good Bretts and bas Bretts like I hear around ? He says he doesn't use these words, he rather speaks about the small Brett or the big Brett : when there's a bit of animal notes in a wine he thinks it's OK, it can even add a bit of complexity, but if it goes up to smelling a sweaty horse or its barnyard that's a problem, and it won't go away. Faults in wines are not just about weird smells, they hide the terroir and original qualities of a wine, and that's something that should be avoided. Many wines for example in the natural-wine milieu (when not properly vinified or accompanied) have a nose that smell ethanal (acétaldéhyde, turns up into apple/nut smells), he says, and this character hides even the region, you don't know if you smell a Languedoc or a Loire wine. On the other hand, a bit of volatile is not bad, because it indirectly enhances the aromas
At the end of this chat I told Didier abouty something I consider important, namely that the organoleptics properties of wines have been too much emphasised for a few decades by the wine people (both amateurs and the wine industry), which was foremost at the expense of the quality of drunkenness which in my mind is what wine is all about since the Antiquity. The 2nd half of the 20th century in particular turned a healthy love for wine shared by every sane individual into an intellectualizing exercize of listing the spotted aromas and other organoleptics (and producing wines by skilled techniques to fit these criteria), and I think much of the general public feels rightly left outside and snobbed. Wine went from being casual and approachable to reserved to a wine-wise elite, including for the way we're supposed to talk about it, and natural wine is for me a healthy comeback of this ageless pleasure and pagan communication with the gods, I really feel that where people drink these wines together they really connect to the spirits of Bacchus and Dionysos, there's a joyful egalitarianism, this is a classless and age-blind movement that comes back to the sources. And I think the way the mainstream wine trade speaks about the wine (which is fully into this predictable aromas descriptors) is already passé, the fashion is already gone but they don't know it yet.
Well, that was my point but let's hear what Didier says about that issue : He agrees about the quality of drunkenness, he says that's what he calls the drinkability, which is important, but he looks also now and then to drink great wines, like these older wines that can show a wide range of things, a long mouth and also an expression of the earth they come from.