He has just taken delivery of three new oak vats in his cellars in Reims that will be used with Chardonnay grapes for Louis Roederer Cristal and Blanc de Blancs. The inside of the vats have seen only the lightest of toastings to limit their aromatic imprint on the crisp minerality of the Chardonnay.
But what the new vats should do instead is to subtly impart a series of taste molecules.
The two most dominant of these, first exposed during Marchal’s PhD
Read more about Axel Marchal: Bordeaux’s next fantastic wine scientist
‘What we have found is that nearly all commercial barrels are made from a mix of two different species of oak; pedunculate and sessile,’ says Marchal, who has been working alongside professor Denis Dubourdieu at Bordeaux’s prestigious wine research institute ISVV.
‘Most coopers are not doing this consciously. They tend to source oak by origin – so forest location – and by the width of the grain, with tighter grain seen as the most desirable. But even the highly prestigious forests such as Tronçais in France have a mix of both species of oak growing naturally within them.
‘What we have learned is that it is the species of oak that makes the greatest difference to taste. The research
Sessile oak has always been privileged for ageing wine. It contains many of the aromatic molecules such as vanillin and whisky-lactone that imparts the patisserie and coconut smells predictable of oak-aged wine, but the discovery of the QTT molecules deepens our understanding of why. Taste is intensified by molecules of aroma, so a sweet taste will ‘taste’ sweeter if it is stamped with the smell of vanilla. In this way, sessile oak wins on both counts.
Marchal’s work goes further than simply identifying the molecules. Out in the forest, an expert can (probably) tell the difference between the two species visually. But once they have been cut into staves, all bets are off.
Marchal has developed a fool proof technique that takes just seven minutes to give a definitive answer, and can be
Back in the lab, Marchal found that to pursue his particular area of interest, he had to start from scratch using liquid chromatography for isolating and identifying non-volatile substances (so picking out tastes not smells, a term coined gustatometry by the ISVV team). Much of it was equipment that to date had been used more typically to identify tiny traces of illegal substances in athletes. At each the boards of isolating the molecules, Marchal carried out a tasting with Dubourdieu and colleague Valerie Lavigne, painstakingly relating the molecules to their look in the glass.
You can’t yet buy a 100% cast iron sessile oak barrel commercially. The ones in the Louis Roederer cellars in Champagne are the first, and wait at an untried the boards. But the future potential is apparent, and a
‘The intention is to harness this knowledge to develop barrels that will respect the nature of wine,’ says Marchal.
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