Friday, February 25, 2011

A Conversation with Jean-Marie Fourrier - Part 2

When I left off, Jean-Marie Fourrier was about to describe what he changed about the Domaine Fourrier wines, since the days when his father made the wine. He said that it began with the 1997 vintage...

JMF: It was 1998 and I'm tasting my 1997 wines and I thought the wines were fragile, with such purity and beauty. In the 1997 vintage everyone racked after malolactic fermentation. I didn't want to rack the wines. My father, who always watched what I was doing, said "No one else is doing that, I never did that."

BG: He was worried. Were you worried too?

JMF: Yes, a bit. Wine school teaches you all the fears of what can go wrong. Take filtering and fining, for example. The wine school definition of filtration that I learned is this - 'filtration is the acceleration of the process of sedimentation.' To me, that meant that if I do nothing, sedimentation will happen anyway. There are two sides to everything - tradition is great and I do a lot of things like my dad did them, but sometimes I don't know why I do it that way. I do things differently if I think there is a better way.

BG: So, what did you say to your father when he didn't like your idea about not racking the 1997's?

JMF: I said that I thought racking might do them more harm than good. I would leave them on the sediment, and if they start to taste wrong, I'll rack them. If not, I'll continue to leave them on the sediment.

BG: What happened?

JMF: They tasted fine, we left the wines on the sediment, and the wines have held up very well. I learned that carbon dioxide, a byproduct of malolactic fermentation, protects the wines against oxidation and I didn't need to add much sulfites. The balance of the protection can come from CO2. And something happened that made me wonder. When you rack a barrel of wine after after 9 months, after malo, you remove 7-9 liters of sediment. But when I racked my wines in 1998 after not disturbing them at all for 18 months, I had only 4-5 liters of sediment to remove. Where had the rest gone? It's as though the wine re-absorbed the sediment!

BG: Was this a theory of yours, a philosophy that you wanted to enact with wine?

JMF: No, no, no. I just thought the '97s seemed perfect without racking. I was not sure what would happen and I tried it. Even with the 1998's when I did the same thing, I was not sure what would happen and was not operating with a new philosophy. I was trying to make the best wine that I could. I tasted the wines and thought "that's what I want to drink myself, that's the wine that I want to share." And by the way, 1998 was a much different vintage, warmer than 1997, riper, the tannins sometimes were overripe and could dominate the purity and the elegance of Pinot. Today I prefer the 1997's, they have amazing freshness. Even after the 1998's were made, I didn't say that I had a new philosophy. I was just seeing what works.

BG: Was there anyone in Burgundy that you could talk to as you were thinking about this? In retrospect you know it was a great decision and your wines are defined by this amazing purity. But it must have been nerve-wracking back then. Was there someone you could ask for advice?

JMF: Really, no. There was only my father's generation to talk to and for the reasons I talked about earlier, they didn't share information like that. My generation went to school together. We were friends, we tasted in each others' cellars, we opened bottles together, we really got to know each other. I would bring a friend over and my father would take me aside and say "What are you doing with him here? Isn't he such and such a wine maker's son?" I would say "Yes dad, and now we help each other and it's good for everyone." No one is copying their neighbor, wine making in Gevrey-Chambertin is still very personal. We still swap bottles, still see each other for tastings.

BG: So you were kind of on your own in 1998, making those decisions.

JMF: Yes. Well, I was reading Jules Chauvet when I started to age wine on the lees. He said that it is not the free sulfites that are dangerous in wine, but the total sulfites. The cumulative effect of all of the sulfites from the day the fruit comes into the fermenting room. You put sulfites in the fermentation room, and then a bit more for the long, cold maceration, which is something you do to extract more from the fruit (the sulfites break the skins), and at the end, you have increased levels of sulfites in the wine. Sulfites for wine are like drugs for people. If you start with big doses, the addiction comes faster. The free sulfites combine with polyphenols and stop protecting the wine against oxidation.

BG: Phenols, like in tannins from skins and pits?

JMF: Yes, the free sulfites combine with them and stop protecting the wine. Then, during elevage, the wine requests more sulfites for protection. If you start with a very small dose, the need stays very small. Chauvet said that the combined phenol/sulfites in your glass are broken up by your stomach acids and become free sulfites again! This is when sulfite levels become quite high and you get a headache.

BG: So what's the best way to do it?

JMF: The best way to use less sulfites is to do it like our grandfathers did it. Use older casks, don't rack the wines or stir the lees, let the natural CO2 protect the wines. It's the new wood, by the way, that needs the sulfites first, as new wood is more porous.

BG: So do you add sulfites to your wines?

JMF: I use a tiny bit in the fermenting room and a tiny bit at bottling, that's it. I don't rack my wines and I don't stir the lees. But to do that, you need a cold and humid cellar. You know, there are people now who say "I rack my wines but I keep the fine lees." They're racking the clear wine and then pouring the fine lees on top of the racked wine, into the new barrel. That mixes the lees, the same as stirring. I never mix, never rack. My wines spend 16-18 months with no disturbing them. The more you are a biologist, the less you have to be an oenologist.

BG: So in with time and success, it's become a philosophy for you.

JMF: Yes. And I'm still thinking about it and still learning.

To be continued...


Stevie said...

This is a really candid and enjoyable interview. My only complaint is that I don't have a glass of 1997 and 1998 Domaine Fourrier by my computer while I read it!

Wicker Parker said...

Interesting, terrific interview, thanks a lot. Fourrier's approach and his inference that "if I do nothing, sedimentation will happen anyway," and that the wines are purer for it, reminds me of something Romain Guiberteau in Saumur told me. He doesn't stir lees (or filter) because, to paraphrase, when you leave a wine alone, it may take longer for the wine to be what it will be, but it will be better when it gets there.

I understand that many winemakers have real economic and/or space considerations and therefore need to get wine out the door, but I am fascinated by the insights generated by the current crop of experimental winemakers that suggest patience rather than intervention: long fermentations, even if temporarily stuck; avoiding racking and/or micro-ox on even extremely tannic wines ("for our wines, [MOx] creates a certain layer of fat that blocks rather than fills the wine’s central expression" - Gideon Beinstock, Renaissance & Clos Saron), and minimizing sulfites for reasons of not just complexity and expression but also wine health: Clark Smith seems to agree with Fourrier when he theorizes that "sulfites actually short-circuit the wine’s natural immune system." (Both these quotes here.)

Anonymous said...

About as good as wine reporting gets...there is so much good stuff in this interview that you could write the history of geekiness (not to mention a few transcendent values such as integrity and courage) right out of it. Bravo BG!

Fabio (Vinos Ambiz) said...

I agree entirely! I believe that an essential ingredient of a quality wine is 'time'! I don't add sulphites (except at bottling, if the wine is to travel far away), nor do I stir up the lees. I do rack once (and sometimes twice), but no filtering or clarifying.