2019 NEWSLETTER

Thursday, March 21, 2019


2019 NEWSLETTER

 

 

10 YEARS OF GUNDOG ESTATE

The completion of the very successful 2018 vintage saw us celebrate our 10th year of operation! The time has definitely flown by, and it has been an extraordinary journey. From the humble beginnings of just two wines, a Canberra District Rosé and Shiraz (around 300 cases in total), the Gundog portfolio has exploded to almost 30 wines – encompassing 3 regions, and 8 source vineyards, across a total production of around 7,000 cases. That’s not even including the Burton McMahon range – with a further 2 single vineyard Yarra Valley Chardonnay and Pinot Noirs. Despite the expansion in the number of products, we remain tightly focussed on a narrow number of varieties, following our desire to pursue only the best examples from the source regions, and vineyards.

Over the years, we’ve been fortunate to receive consistent recognition of the quality of wines we produce, via the wine show circuit and from the inspiring, and humbling, words of endorsement from wine writers.  We’ve been encouraged by critics and customers alike to continue developing the wide breadth of styles we produce, from the classical to the truly innovative.

With the first 10 years marked by rapid expansion, what’s next for Gundog? In terms of production, we will continue to grow the business in line with demand, as our vineyard sources allow. Quality will remain the first and foremost consideration in any wines we produce, while innovation and experimentation will continue to drive our exploration of variety, style and regional identity. We will continue to work to forge a place amongst the very best wine producers in the country. On top of this, we are diving into one of the most significant and exciting plot twists in the Gundog story thus far, with the launch of a community focussed partnership that will hopefully change the lives of many (read on in the next article).
 
Clearly, none of what we have already achieved, and what we hope to achieve over the next 10 years, would be possible without the support of our customers, wonderful Cellar Club Members, and the brilliant work of our staff, so thank you all for coming on this journey with us.

 

 

 

 

 

GUNDOG AND PATH 2 CHANGE

Our 10th Anniversary is a significant milestone for our family business and it’s thanks to you - our members and supporters, that we have achieved this. We are choosing to celebrate this milestone and mark our next phase a little differently - by giving back to the community.
 
Did you know that homelessness is reaching a State of Emergency here in NSW?
 
Nearly 40,000 people are homeless and the rate of homelessness is increasing at epidemic levels. There was a 37% jump between 2011 and 2016 in NSW, which is more than double the increase across the country. Young people form a significant portion of those experiencing, or at risk of, homelessness.
 
Our young people are a significant resource to Australia yet, without support, many struggle to access opportunities to reach their potential, at great cost to us all. The transition to adulthood can be challenging even for those from safe, nurturing and healthy families. The young people that access Path 2 Change services have undergone profoundly destructive experiences. Many are scared, traumatised, confused, and as young as 15, are trying to navigate their transition into adulthood without the support of family or community. This can lead to poor outcomes – risk of homelessness, disrupted education, lower prospects of employment, poverty, drug and alcohol abuse, higher rates of incarceration and struggles with mental and physical health.
 
We are passionate about doing something at the grass-roots level to change the future of disadvantaged youth. As such, we are thrilled to announce a partnership between Gundog Estate and Path 2 Change.
 
Path 2 Change are a fantastic, unique, not-for-profit, organisation based in Newcastle that seek to prevent and reduce youth homelessness. They provide care, protection, support & advice through identifying cracks in the current system. They invest in programs to both support and empower those experiencing, or at risk of, homelessness, assisting them to achieve independence and connection within the community.

At Gundog, we see this as a long-term strategic partnership where our business activities can benefit those disadvantaged the most - not just through fund raising, but through work experience, training and mentoring.  We are really excited at the potential we have to make a tangible, and sustainable, difference in helping transform the lives of disadvantaged youth.

By continuing to support Gundog you are doing something to help us help others. By buying and drinking great wines you’re leaving a legacy of improved prospects for those not as fortunate.
 
We look forward to sharing more information about Path 2 Change programs, telling you about how they are benefiting participants, and how your support of Gundog is contributing to this change.
 
Gundog Estate Owner and Winemaker, Matt Burton, and Path 2 Change Executive Manager, Jennifer O’Sullivan
 

 

 

 

 

 

 AWARDS AND REVIEWS ROLL IN

2018 has delivered some brilliant critical acclaim for our wines. Our 2018 ‘The Chase’ Semillon landed GOLD medals at the Royal Sydney, Royal Queensland and the National wine shows, while our 2018 Riesling and 2017 Hilltops Shiraz No.1 each claimed GOLD medals at their respective regional shows.  Very favourable reviews have been published across the range of 2018 whites, and 2017 reds – most notably the Rare Game Shiraz, with reviews including a brilliant 95-point rating from Huon Hooke, and very kind words from Max Allen in Gourmet Traveller Magazine. In James Halliday’s 2019 Wine Companion, we retained our prestigious FIVE RED STAR winery rating (top 2% of wineries), with an amazing nine wines receiving 95 points or above. Added to this, only our second ever Riesling scored an incredible 97 points from James Halliday and beat out all competitors to feature as the highest rated of all Rieslings in Halliday’s prestigious ‘Top 100 wines of 2018’.

BEST SMALL CELLAR DOOR OF THE YEAR – HUNTER VALLEY

For the second time since opening our doors 7 years ago, we have been humbled with this prestigious award from Gourmet Traveller WINE Magazine. The Hunter is home to over 150 cellar doors, which means this type of recognition is made even more special.  The award is an absolute credit to our passionate staff, who deliver a world class cellar door experience, day in and day out – well done team!

 

 

 

 


CHAT WITH MATT

You know as well as we do that once you become a Gundog customer, you really become part of the family.

It has always been our goal to create wine that brings people together. So we have created a group for Gundog members and friends to connect! We've got members and Gundog appreciators all over Australia so we are so excited to get you all involved!

As part of this exclusive group, we will also include Chat to Matt forums where you can ask him questions and get the inside scoop on all that is happening at Gundog Estate.

To join the group, click this link. We cannot wait to connect with you!

 

 

 

 

2019 CALENDAR OF EVENTS

We are finalising details for our line up of Members and Friends events for 2019. Mark the dates in your diary and stay tuned for your invitation closer to the dates!

4 + 5 MAY                Lunches at Pony Dining, The Rocks
27 JULY                   Canberra Member’s Lunch
17 AUGUST            Hunter Winery Lunch
28 SEPTEMBER   Brisbane Member’s Lunch
26 OCTOBER         Sydney Tasting Event

SUNDAY SOUNDS at the Cork St. Cellar, Gundaroo:  10 March, 14 April, 23 June, 18 August and 13 October

 

 

2018 MEMBER EVENT SNAPS

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

VINTAGE 2019 IS UPON US!

At the time of writing, we are coming out the other side of a hot and compressed Hunter Valley harvest! A relatively normal Spring budburst suggested that the harvest wouldn’t start in earnest until after the January long weekend but relentless heat certainly brought things forward. Thus, Gundog picking commenced on 21st January, with one of our favourite parcels of Semillon, from Dave and Sue Vernon’s dry-grown, and picturesque, Mount View vineyard. One of the more full-flavoured parcels we receive each year, we often break down the batch, and ferment some volumes on skins, like reds, and others cloudy, in tank or barrel. This forms the foundation of our ever-popular Wild Semillon blend!
See below: Nick, Jackie, and Matt draining off the first batch of skin-fermented Semillon

 

 

 

We’ve since taken some brilliant parcels of Semillon and Shiraz from the Somerset and Tinkler’s vineyards. These we harvested early while the flavour and acidity were still bright and fresh. Wines produced from these vineyards usually find their way into our award-winning ‘The Chase’ Semillon, and Rare Game Shiraz blends. Image below: Semillon from the Tinkler’s School Block, delivered in pristine condition

Hot years like this tend to deliver more concentrated wines, boasting generous flavour and mouthfeel. This generally translates into strong early-drinking appeal in both whites and reds, despite the extra body and structure. 2019 is the third consecutive vintage in the Hunter with above average temperatures and very low rainfall.

With the last of the Hunter fruit in, we've taken our first parcels of Riesling and Shiraz from Canberra and Hilltops, and each have looked outstanding...very exciting!

 

 

 

 

 

FROM THE GUNDOG CORK STREET CELLAR, GUNDAROO

What a wonderful second year for the Gundog Cork Street Cellar! We’ve had plenty of visiting members through, with many guests offering lots of positive feedback on the Cork Street experience, and about how perfect a spot our terrace is for an afternoon cheese platter and a glass of wine!

2018 saw Gundog participate in Canberra’s comprehensive festival schedule; both attending, and hosting, many events throughout the year. Highlights definitely include both the winter Truffle and Fireside Festivals.

During the Truffle Festival, which is held from June through August, Gundog paired up with a local Gundaroo truffle grower, Chris Joshua. Fresh “diamonds of the kitchen” truffles were then shaved on top of oozy French brie and paired with a vertical flight of Gundog Estate Shiraz, spanning five vintages. You can imagine how much of a treat it was to see wines produced from the same vineyard present so differently due to vintage variation alone. The wines ranged in style; from the cooler 2012 season through to the hot and dry 2016 vintage! For me, this really highlighted the unique qualities of boutique wine production, individual qualities that are often lost on a larger, commercial scale.

The Fireside Festival (featuring venues with cosy fireplaces
😊 ) spanned three weeks and was another chance for Gundog Estate to team up with neighbouring restaurant, Grazing. We paired the always amazing Gundog Muscat with three delectable desserts; Pumpkin ‘Pie’, Salted Hazelnut and Caramel Parfait (my personal favourite), and a Pear Galette.

Excitingly, our Sunday Sounds events continue to build in popularity. These events are held at the Cork St. Cellar door and have really highlighted the wonderful versatility of this site. Holding these events means regular fun experiences for both new, and regular, Gundog visitors, and has allowed us to pair our wines with exceptional meals accompanied by wonderful local musicians. We have had the courtyard glass doors wide open, with the live music serenading those 40 or so people seated inside and out.  In winter, with a more intimate number of attendees, we have the fireplace roaring, keeping everyone so very cozy.

Being able to work so closely, and regularly, with Chef Kurt Neumann of Grazing fame has been such a treat and with 2019 dates and menus locked in, these are events that are not to be missed!

The Sunday Sounds Events have proved to be very popular
10 March (first SS for the year)
14 April 
23 June
18 August (truffle festival)
13 October


In mentioning all these future events, I’ll recap our last event in Gundaroo. We finished off 2018 with a bang and, in December, we hosted a Gundaroo locals event at the cellar door -  not only to celebrate our 18 month trading anniversary in this beautiful location, but also as a thank you to all locals and visitors for supporting our venture in Canberra. The evening was enjoyable, Chef Kurt from Grazing supplying the goods with a honey-glazed Christmas ham (expertly carved by Geoff) and paired with a scrumptious slaw...alongside some magnificent Gundog wines of course! I really enjoyed the chance to mingle with everyone and reminisce on our opening and how well (and FAST) the past 18 months have gone.

It just goes to show, there is always something fun going on in Canberra and if you haven’t had the chance to visit, I’d highly recommend coming down! We have convenient accommodation located just a few doors down at The Nest, a local pub a block away and, of course, a fabulous wine district just waiting for more wine lovers to discover it!

Cheers!
Sara Lauer

 

 

 

 

 

 

STAY IN BURGUNDY

Audrey and Clément recently hosted Geoff and Sharon at the beautiful Masion des Courtines in Beaune, France. Boasting luxuriously appointed studios and apartments, this is the ideal base from which to explore the vineyards (and restaurants!) of Burgundy.

Geoff and Sharon struck up such a relationship with the hosts that they have since offered the following to any of our wine club members who might be interested in staying with them;

  • Assistance in planning a local touring itinerary
  • Tastings with exclusive wine producers
  • Bookings at the best local restaurants
  • Organisation of in-house dinners with local chefs
  • Group accommodation options

And, most significantly, a 20% member’s discount , when you book via the website. If you would like more information (including discount code), please contact us at sales@gundogestate.com.au , or  Maison des Courtines directly, contact@maisondescourtines.com.

 

 

 

 

WINE PROFILES

 

 

 

 

2018 RIESLING

 

 

The 2018 season in the Canberra District played out well. Despite a January hail event, which particularly affected vineyards in Murrumbateman, a warm and dry summer delivered minimal disease pressure and promised to deliver outstanding fruit. Fairly typical, early-autumn, conditions ensured ripening which led to sugar accumulation coinciding nicely with flavour development, with the first fruit harvested on the 9th of March. 

2018 marks the release of our second ever Canberra District Riesling. Again, we were lucky enough to get our hands on just a few tonnes of fruit from the talented guys over at the Four Winds Vineyard, which was hand-picked and promptly delivered to our winery in the Hunter. Only the first 500 litres per tonne of free-run juice was used, which was fined and racked prior to fermentation with an aromatic yeast (QA23). As per the 2017 release, I sought absolute purity of fruit expression, supported by a line of natural acidity. For the second consecutive vintage, there was no need to adjust the acidity whatsoever; the numbers were superb. The wine went to bottle with a pH of 2.87 and TA of 7.8 g/L, in careful balance with a residual sugar of 4.3 g/L and an alcohol of 11.3%.
97 Points - James Halliday TOP 100 Wines for 2019
GOLD medal - 2018 Canberra District Regional Wine Show.

 

 

2018 'THE CHASE' SEMILLON

 

 

Detail, precision, and purity are the key themes driving this wine for us. As per the 2017 release, ‘The Chase’ is produced from fruit grown at the Somerset Vineyard in Pokolbin, almost entirely from a 1969 planting, set over an old creek bed that runs through the property. This was the exceptional block I referred to in the introduction! Despite the very low yields, and hot conditions, the fruit ripened evenly and held beautiful acidity to harvest. I can only speculate that it was a combination of vine age, a really well-established canopy, and protection from the outright western sun and wind, that delivered us this miracle parcel at just 10 baume. As the days were so damned hot, I made the decision to take the block by machine – which, given that this is our most significant parcel of Semillon year to year, was not an easy one to make. I must have done something right in a former life because on the night(s) of harvesting, the temps dropped to around 10 degrees C – absolutely freaky stuff! The low arrival temps, combined with our Champagne-like approach to minimal extraction (450-550 litres per tonne), meant that the juice glowed a luminous green in tank – and I had a big smile on my face!

Winemaking revisions are minor from year-to-year for this wine so, following fermentation, we racked from heavy lees, and then allowed it to mature slightly cloudy in tank for four months to flesh it out, and bring a sense of cohesiveness to the palate. Very little fining was required before bottling, as the small amount of residual phenolic material helped to shape, and add weight, to the wine.
I believe this Semillon to be as good as anything I made from the 2005, 2009, or 2016 vintages – right up there!
GOLD medal - 2018 National Wine Show
GOLD medal - 2018 Royal Sydney Wine Show
GOLD medal - 2018 Royal Queensland Wine Show
96 Points James Halliday
95 Points Huon Hooke

 

 

 

 

2018 WILD SEMILLON

 

 

I seem to have more and more fun making this wine every year! As my confidence as a winemaker grows, and my belief in this alternative style firms, I get more and more adventurous in the number and style of parcels and ferments that eventually form the patchwork of the blend.

Is the 2018 the most interesting one yet? I’ll leave that for you to decide but, from my point of view, I’m very pleased with the direction we are moving in with the Wild Semillon . The ultimate goal is to craft an enticing, even exotic, style of Hunter Valley Semillon which will offer the drinker an array of aromas, flavours, and textures that aren’t usually associated with the variety. I think this wine works best in hot years and this is reflected in the quality of both the 2017 and 2018 vintages. Why? Because the fruit carries a higher level of natural phenolic content.  With bigger flavours, and higher baumés, the fruit is better able to carry the “work” we apply in the winery. In cooler years, I think it can look a little forced; with a highly phenolic, spicy and intense skin fermented portion juxtaposed against a light, and more traditional, style of Semillon – it just doesn’t seem to mesh as well as it does in hot years. To aide this, I’ve been focusing on bringing in a greater number, and broader range, of bridging components into the mix. These are portions of, usually cloudy or barely settled, juice that we ferment wild in barrel or tank. Stylistically, they sit in between the outright ferocity of the 100% skin ferment component (approx. 12%), and the tamer, clean-settled, tank fermented parts of the blend. This obviously requires a great deal more effort in the winery, but I feel it’s really taken the wine to a new level. There are over a dozen individual components in this year’s Wild Semillon, versus three or four just a couple of years ago.

 

 

 

 

2017 RARE GAME SHIRAZ

 

 

I am more than a little excited about this release! We haven’t had a Rare Game since the stellar 2014 vintage and, needless to say, I had a big smile on my face as this went down the bottling line. In fact, if I think about it, I can trace the origin of the smile back to the arrival of two parcels of Shiraz that braved the heat better than I could have ever imagined. Despite the excruciatingly low yields, fruit from the Tinkler’s 1948 (old Ben Ean) plantings, and the Somerset 1970 block, arrived fresh and vibrant. We took these parcels after the bulk of our other Shiraz was in, so perhaps they were far enough behind in terms of ripeness that they were better equipped to ride out the heat; and that they did in style. Aware of the intensity of flavours on offer, and already thinking about where these parcels would end up, I decided to run whole berries in both ferments, and 25% whole bunches in the 48 Block (which translated to 17% of the final blend). I held both parcels cold for a couple of days, fermented warm, and finished them hot. I was looking to capture the full breadth of potential flavours and all the shapes of tannin on offer. Maturation was then over 14 months, in 30% new French oak, by way of tight-grained St. Martin puncheons.

I summarise this wine simply by saying, I have never bottled a Hunter Shiraz offering remotely as much vibrancy, and intensity, after a 14-month stint in barrel. Defying the heat, there is just so much personality in this wine. I can’t help but love the way it encapsulates the enigma that is growing grapes in the Hunter Valley and, after a couple of wet years, serves as a timely reminder of why we are here!
95 Points - Huon Hooke
 

 

 

2017 MARKSMAN'S SHIRAZ

 

 

We were lucky to receive some outstanding parcels of Canberra District Shiraz in 2017. Highlights included Phillip Williams’ Wallaroo, the Four Winds, and Dahlberg vineyards. For each parcel, a combination of crushed fruit and whole-berries were cold-soaked for 2 days, prior to warm fermentations, which we allowed to initiate naturally, before over-seeding with M2 yeast. Maturation then took place over 16 months in (30% new) French oak puncheons prior to blending. As per the 2016 release, the 2017 Marksman’s was produced without the inclusion of Viognier.

Reflecting the extended ripening season, which benefited from warm days, cool nights, and minimal rainfall, each of these parcels offered excellent depth of flavour, and aromatic complexity, evident very early on in the production process. Favourable chemistry, and outstanding tannin profiles, confirmed the quality of the season, and I had no hesitation in pursuing another Marksman’s Shiraz blend.

In such quality terms, I believe the 2017 Hilltops and Canberra vintages to be right on par with 2015. For me, each are stand-out vintages for the ways in which the resulting wines offer pristine delivery of fruit flavour, effortless complexity, and a kind of energy that leaves no doubt as to their immediate, or future quality.

 

 

 

INDOMITUS

 

 

(“Indomitus,” – untameable, wild, unconquerable; “Albus,” – white; “Citrea”- citrus; “Rosa” – rose; “Rutilus,” – red. Latin translation)

The enduring goal with this range is to create wines that will challenge some of the winemaking, and sensory norms, usually associated with the varietals used, and to evoke a sense of discovery in the drinker. We take an experimental approach to many aspects of the winemaking, looking to improve and evolve our processes, with the view to applying successful techniques and approaches to other wines in the broader Gundog Estate range.

Here’s a rundown of the winemaking behind the 2018 releases!

 

 

2018 INDOMITUS ALBUS

 

 

Dry-grown Semillon from the Vernon vineyard in Mount View. Fermented with naturally occurring yeast on 30% skins by weight, 30% fermented cloudy in barrel with naturally occurring yeast. Maturation on skins for 195 days. No fining agents used.

 

 

2018 INDOMITUS CITREA

 

 

2018 marks the very first release of Indomitus Citrea!
With this wine, we decided to explore alternative winemaking approaches to Canberra District Riesling. Sourced from the Four Winds vineyard in Murrumbateman, fruit was hand-picked prior to destemming, crushing, and pressing at the winery. Cloudy juice was then fermented with naturally occurring yeast, on solids, in old barrels. Maturation occurred on lees in barrel for 4 months. No fining agents were used. 

 

 

2018 INDOMITUS ROSA

 

 

Our second release of Rosa is based on Nebbiolo from the Freeman vineyards in the Hilltops region (near Young). Pressed after 12 hours on skins, we then fermented as cloudy juice, with naturally occurring yeast, on solids, in old puncheons. Maturation then took place on lees in barrel for almost 4 months. No fining agents used.

This is one of the most exciting wines I have produced. Outside of being the first time I've worked with Nebbiolo, it just kept showing so many amazing aspects of its personality throughout production - and it kept evolving. Be it the range of aromatics and flavours on offer, or even the colour, it was almost entirely different every time I tasted it. 

 

 

2017 INDOMITUS RUTILUS

 

 

Shiraz from the Four Winds vineyard in Murrumbateman. Whole berries, and 25% whole bunches in the fermentation which we ran warm to hot. Maturation was then in old oak and flextanks for 12 months prior to blending. No fining agents used.

 

 

 


GEOFF'S LETTER FROM THE VINEYARD
March 2019

The property immediately to the west of the GUNDOG ESTATE Gundaroo vineyard is also a vineyard, and its conscientious owners have been precisely tracking local rainfall for the last 35 years. It came as no surprise that the 2018 rainfall total was the third lowest for that 35-year period. Like the rest of NSW, the Canberra District was in “official” drought for most of the year. Our large surface dam is now almost empty, each hot day evaporating more water back to the heavens.  We have been irrigating the vineyard since budburst, back in September, exclusively with water from our subterranean bore.  Over December/January the district has experienced the longest period of 40+ degree days in its recorded history.


It is in this difficult, and hazardous, horticultural environment that we undertook our major vineyard project for 2018.  As part of a long-term vision for this vineyard we began in late November changing our almost 2000 Chardonnay vines to Riesling, grafting onto each vine trunk a tiny, new season, Riesling bud, obtained from a vineyard nursery in SA’s Riverland District.
 
There was an anxious couple of weeks as each day we carefully watered and examined each vine to check if the hard little buds had started to soften and become “fluffy”, an indicator of the start of bud-burst. And then, almost miraculously, there was a widespread bursting and the first tiny leaves began to uncurl.  As predicted by our expert grafting crew we ended up with an above 90% strike rate for the buds, which was particularly gratifying. 
 
Now, twelve weeks later, most of the new shoots from these buds have reached the cordon wire, 40cms higher, which will become the main support structure for the future fruit-bearing shoots. Our main task, at this stage, in addition to carefully regulated watering, is paying daily attention to removing the new suckers of Chardonnay shoots that continue to sprout from the vine trunks, below the grafting point. This will continue up to “leaf-fall” stage in mid-April.
 
With compliant weather in the year ahead we should see our first, small crop of Riesling grapes as part of the 2020 Vintage.

 

 

 

The second most significant event at the Gundaroo vineyard during 2018 was our decision to take a winter break from the property. Taking advantage of the hibernation of the vineyard, Sharon and I decided to seek warmer climes and headed off to Burgundy for a few weeks. We were not disappointed as every day there was over 30 degrees and the long summer days only ended after a 9.30pm sunset.
 
We set up in the historic fortified town of Beaune, situated about halfway along the 60km Cote d’Or, an ideal base for enjoying the marvellous, intensely cultivated, Grand Cru vineyards of Burgundy, and their associated Chateaux.  We took an apartment on the third floor of a restored 17th Century merchant’s house, near the centre of the town. This magnificent apartment provided views across the battlements and into the various Domaines that have cultivated grapevines, right up to the ramparts, from as long ago as the ninth century.  How the 45-year-old history of the Canberra District Wine Region pales into comparative insignificance!
 
For those with an interest in wine, Beaune is heavenly – everything in this town is to do with wine; its history, production, sales, and best of all, its consumption. Cafes and restaurants of all standards serve the classic food of Bourgogne, matched with excellent Burgundy wines by the glass, from Grand Cru to vin ordinaire, often available exclusively at these cafés.  Patrons choose restaurants by perusing the outside, by-the-glass, drinks list as much as by the menu de jour. And don’t get me going about the food…
 
One of the more gratifying experiences of our visit to Burgundy was not the eating or drinking, but the opportunity to visit the manufacturer of Matthew’s favourite French oak barrels, the Tonnellerie de Mercureylike everything else, just a short drive from Beaune.
 
Modern cooperage practice is a great exemplar of modern winery practice: that is, the combination of basic traditional skills with the latest high-tech equipment and methodologies. The workforce on the factory floor, in this case 22 workers, comprise burley hammer wielding coopers, bashing the steel bands into position around the bending staves, and “wood engineers” examining wood grain, porosity and splintering with a fastidious attention to quality control. Throughout the factory there are laser guided cutting, planing and shaping machines, replacing the previously used hand chisels and spokeshaves, which work to within fractions of a millimetre tolerance. Towards the end of each barrel’s assembly it is rigorously tested for leakage, joinery strength and other features, including appearance.  At this tonnellerie, around 60% of the barrels are sent back along the line for some correction or modification before being branded and wrapped, ready for shipping to wineries around the world.
 
To buy French oak barrels from quality coopers like Tonnellerie de Mercurey you must order well ahead – not just to give them time to make them, but to customise them to the winemaker’s specific requirements, and in this cooperage there are options for the most fastidious winemaker to ponder. First there is the barrel size required.  Generally, this is a fairly obvious choice, depending on the type, and style, of wine that is being made. More subtle factors include the grain structure of the oak staves, its colour, aroma, length of drying time etc. The TM company accommodate this range of wood choices by having source forests in three different areas, all within a 300km radius of the cooperage. In a similar way that grape growers discuss the “terroir” of their vineyards, these coopers talk about the terroir of their oak forests; in this case offering a choice between soil profiles, from sandy, chalky or stony soils, differences that produce mature oak timbers of differing grain size and structure.
 
Another option for the winemaker is the degree of “toasting” that is applied to the barrel.  Traditionally, once the staves are assembled for a barrel, and held loosely in place by steel bands, a small fire, fuelled by oak offcuts, is lit inside the barrel.  The original purpose of this heating was to slightly soften the staves to assist their bending but in modern practice the effect of the toasting on the flavour profile of the finished wine is foremost in the winemaker’s mind. TM offers winemakers a choice of seven different degrees of toasting, to accommodate the varying effects of the toasting on the maturing wine.
 
Wanting to follow, in detail, the construction of one of GUNDOG ESTATE’s barrels, we were shown a bundle of measured and cut staves that had just arrived at the cooperage from one of the companies “stave mills”.  Attached to this bundle was a small plastic tag with a series of numbers and symbols stamped on it. Once this tag is read by the first computer-controlled machine, into which the staves are fed, a file is created that stores the timber’s forest, and milling details, followed by all other relevant details during the barrel’s construction until finished. Finally, a unique reference number is created which is chiselled into the top of the barrel, linking it to the tonnellerie’s data base.  An unexpected leak in one of these barrels, noticed in a Hunter Valley winery for instance, can be checked against the data base and a possible explanation of the fault may be identified.
 
Back in Beaune, there is a superb Wine Museum where we watched a short black and white documentary film made in 1943 which follows the construction, by hand, of a similar oak wine barrel to those produced by TM. The wiry old cooper in the film worked alone in a small stone cellar, with only occasional help from an apprentice. All cutting, shaping and measuring was done by hand and eye.  It took this master cooper 18 days to produce one barrel – the single barrel is shown in the last shot of the film being carted off to a winery, in a horse-drawn dray.
 
Tonnelliere Murcurey coopers, there are 22 of them, produce 85 barrels a day from start to completion, or a total of 1,530 barrels in 18 days.  Using modern technology, these coopers are producing 69.5 barrels, per person, in the same time that the old master produced one!
 
Sadly, most “retired” barrels are bisected and resold through plant nurseries as growing pots for ornamental plants. Shameful that we can’t find a more worthy end for these superb testaments to craftsmanship.
 

Cheers, till next time,

Geoff Burton

 



 

 

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