The other day I was invited by a wine import company called Great Domaines to a tasting of the Burgundies of Jean-Marie Fourrier, a fourth generation wine-maker from this favourite wine region of mine. Mr Fourrier is an engaging man, with lovely wines to boot, but since the 2005 vintages that we tasted are completely unavailable to purchase from Great Domaines (you could aim for the acclaimed 2006 vintage if you contact www.greatdomaines.co.za), I won’t bother to write about them.
Fourrier is returning to his roots. For a region that is already pretty fixed on tradition, this is something. He grows his vines without the use of any chemical fertilisers, and never uses vine stock treated for disease resistance or high yield. It’s about respect for the natural order. He waits until a vine is 30 years old before he uses its grapes to make Domaine Fourrier wine, until then he considers them immature. Aside from the fact that plant virus wrecks many of our vines within 20 years, our growers also have little tolerance for a plant with the small yields of an older vine. For most of them, it’s about quantity more than quality.
Fourrier then makes his wines using as little new wood as possible – no more than 20%. He has a number of reasons for this. In terms of wine quality, he states that “oak is for the slow breathing of the wine, not for taste.” He is after fruit purity, not barrel flavour. Again, consider the local model. Almost every producer chasing high quality “treats” the wine to 80-100% new wood. “Treats” means both an indulgence and a treatment, for the powerful flavour that oak imparts is one that we, the consumer, now think is the taste of fine wine.
But consider the other meaning of “treat”. New French oak, or any oak, is a dwindling global commodity. To use new oak, the prime staves from an old, slow-growing tree, primarily to flavour a wine, and then next year to ship another few hundred new ones in, for their flavour, is supremely wasteful – even arrogant. As supply dwindles, the luxury will dissolve anyway, so expect the oak flavour you are accustomed to to soon come from flavourants.
Fourrier also has a great deal to say about cork. For a Frenchman, he is unusually critical. Though he does love their place in wine tradition, their failure rate has led him to revert to the old practise of sealing all his bottles with wax. 50,000 bottles are all hand sealed. Wax is the perfect substance to prevent the exchange of gas, and the subsequent oxidation of the wine, that a poor cork allows. Cork, too, is a natural product under threat from commercial expansion. Did you know that men with guns patrol prime forests to prevent theft of bark?