Elevage – a closer look into Maison Ilan

Good morning everyone,

I wanted to take a brief moment to speak about what we do here at Maison Ilan . Many of you reading this know a bit about my story, but the take home message shouldn’t be that I am such a nice guy that my wines have to be amazing or anything similar. What I hope to make clear in my story being out there is that I am never afraid to go off of the beaten path in order to do what feels right to me. Some may call this intuition, I just describe it as being obsessive in my pursuit of finding the path that corresponds to who I am at my core. This in no way is to suggest that I always make the best decisions, but I take in an incredible amount of information prior to moving an inch. Once I am comfortable, I leap, without doubting a second of it. I believe this to be a sign of my faith in my decisions.

As a producer of wines, each of the decisions involved have resulting consequences. I view many of the processes in the production of wine which I view to be ‘additional’ as giving consequences to the wine that are distracting. Some distractions can be utterly delicious, of course. Though I find it personally interesting to explore what exists in the land surrounding me here in Burgundy without these distractions, or the consequences of additional processes. In my view, this provides a certain level of clarity which I cherish. As with many things, there are compromises.

My main compromise at Maison Ilan is oak. There, I said it. Oak has been a bit of a compromise for me. I’ve attempted to decrease the amount and type of oak flavors that are transmitted into our wines. The way that I see things, the finished wine arrives after a series of events and transitions are completed. These transitions in particular from grapes on the vine, to being placed into collecting vessels, primary fermentation vessel, secondary fermentation vessel, settling vessel after élevage and then into bottle create stress on the grapes/wine. In order to decrease this stress during these transitions, I have attempted to be gentle and patient (the two work together) with the desire of keeping the stress at a lower rate while smoothing out the transition events.

We may discuss the other aspects at a different time, but for now, allow me to provide some insight into my views on élevage.

First of all, this is a step that is quite necessary, potentially simple, though filled with a dizzying amount of variables that promise to change details both large and small for a particular wine. We fill our barrels direct from the wooden fermentation tanks on the ground level while the barrels are resting in the cave below using gravity. They are filled in the order that the wine is pulled from the tank. The free run is filled, and once the tank’s excess wine has been drained, we enter the tanks (no doors) and manually fill 10 liter buckets with the grapes still holding onto wine. These buckets are then pressed in our 100-year-old wooden vertical press. This press wine is then ran via gravity into the cave, either completing the last barrel that was being filled with the free run wine. If the free run wine filled the last active barrel then an empty barrel is the first recipient of the press wine. What I hope to illustrate is that the wines are not held in a tank prior to being placed into barrels, they are ran straight through. This method preserves more CO2 as the wines are not entering an extra vessel prior to arriving in the barrel. A result of this decision is that the wines will have more variability from each other. As an example, a freshly filled third barrel in a cuvée of five barrels will taste different from the first barrel filled, even with every other detail made identical. Having all the barrel deconstructed in this manner thrills me more than I can convey. Part of this is knowing that there are differences inherent in the order in which the barrels were filled and how this affects the wine.

As much change as the grapes had gone through in making the change from resting on the vines to finishing fermentation, going into a barrel is a bit of a shock. Sure, the wines fermented in wooden fermentations tanks prior to this step but the transition is not to be underestimated. All too often, freshly fermented wines that seemed somewhat pleasurable are strangely out of sorts when tasted after being placed in barrel. I’ve tried this at one week intervals for the first three to four months and can say that even with used oak barrels, the wines are in a state of shock. What was once pleasant is now off-balance and awkward. I don’t necessarily find oak on the profile but the lack of composure is striking.

Fast forward to around the 12 month period, and the wines have finally shed some of the new wine awkwardness. The wines at this point have not been moved via racking (drawing the wine from its lees – the ‘sediment’ residing in the lowest part of the barrel), and topping up the volume inside of the barrel to prevent oxidation has been performed with just marbles instead of wines. The marbles displace volume and do not introduce ‘foreign’ wine into the barrel’s environment.

Now here is the interesting part. We have a good number of visitors at Maison Ilan. I’ve always felt the need to put the best foot forward, and to, well, not give someone an off wine. There is an importer that liked my initial lack of interest in showing a particular wine and smiled in mentioning that part of what he admired about Henri Jayer was that if you visited his cellar while he didn’t like one of his wines, well you just weren’t offered the wine to taste. If the Richebourg wasn’t ready, for you to taste, it wasn’t ready for to taste – and you wouldn’t! I liked the thought of not wanting to show a wine before it was ready and figured it also increased my professionalism in only showing what was pleasurable at the moment. So I went through and placed one stone on my ‘favorite’ barrels of each cuvée and did about twenty tastings focusing on the stoned barrels. I inevitably showed other barrels during tastings because I was so excited to show other shades to the same color, but I generally stuck to this for the twenty or so tastings.

What made for a ‘favorite’ barrel? Well, commonly the reduced barrels were ruled out. I tried to explain reduction to a few visitors and unfairly tired of explaining my thoughts on it and decided to not show these barrels. I liked some of the reduced barrels but there are so many factors that come into play, one of which was timing. I loved a good many of the reduced barrels with around 30 seconds or so of time provided in order to let the reduction blow off. The issue that I saw was that many visitors would drink the wines without giving the wine any air. They seemed to like the wine (some would call the reduced barrel as their favorite once the reduction blew off) but I felt the wine wasn’t given proper context. Another common deciding factor was clarity. There seemed to be certain barrels that were less transparent. I couldn’t understand why, but some would just have it in spades while others lacked definition. There was one thing else. Some of the barrels showed more wood than the others, even though the same barrel maker, similar barrel age, toast levels and forest were employed. This sensation wasn’t constant or even aggressive but as sensitive as I had grown to oak some of the barrels would stick out over time, fall back in line and then poke out yet again.

The tastings were just random visitors, over about four months. We weren’t getting that many visitors at the time so the stoned barrels would keep their one piece of limestone on the leading edge of the barrel and I’d largely forget about it until I would be asked about it during some of the tastings. Keep in mind that each time I top up, I choose random barrels to taste and I taste each barrel inside of a cuvée at random points in order to follow the wine’s evolution.

And then it happened. I started to notice when tasting on my own that the stoned barrels weren’t my favorites. Some of them were quite reduced, I wouldn’t have picked the wine as a tasting barrel, the definition was gone, and the barrel two over was tasting in line with my preferences. Time after time this happened. It happened enough that I’d have two tasting barrels going. One day one would be showing well, the next day it would switch characteristics with its neighbor.

Since that moment, I decided to show each visitor a random barrel from each cuvée. Of course some of the wines may not show as another barrel, but I figured that was the most accurate way to show the wine to visitors, fluctuations and all. Some may not get what the wines were doing, but really it didn’t matter. The point was to experience the wines in their current state without reigning in how the wines showed or which part of the wines were being experienced. It is now much more of a pleasurable thing to show, share and explore the wines with the visitor instead of guiding the through the wines.

At the 18 month mark, where wines have for the past few generations generally been bottled, and while the (nearly literally) night and day fluctuations have settled down a bit, the changes are still there. I had also previously noticed that wines would commonly show reduced and then open, only to show reduced a bit later down the line.  This is something that I saw in the 2009s, 2010s and started to see again with the 2011s. Throughout this time, I kept up my reading of older books on the wines of Burgundy. The subject of élevage (aging wine in barrel-literally ‘raising’) played in a role in a few of the books. Nothing truly stood out for me so I just kept plugging away with my plans. The slight oak edge had trailed off, with a finer degree of focus and depth to the wines. There was much pleasure at 12 months with these wines, but the point was sharpened with the additional 6 months in barrel.

The 2009s had been bottled without purposely extending time in barrel, 2010s as well. All had been bottled besides a lonely cuvee of Gevrey-Chambertin, with just a barrel and a half that was given a bit of time to wait out its malolactic fermentation. Slowly but surely I started to hear others’ plans for bottling the 11s early and began to fall in line with this. I started to relay this when speaking with those that had purchased our wines as futures. I started planning bottling to begin in January of 2013 in spite of not being convinced it was the right thing. Part of my rushing was also coming from literally 4 or 5 folks that really wanted the 11s early, seeing as the 09s and 2010s came in after I had forecasted. The thing is that my forecasts were based on what other producers were doing, I wasn’t doing anything else that my neighbors were doing, so I shouldn’t have believed that this most important part would somehow fall within the same lines as what others were doing. With 2011s in particular, one aspect that bears mentioning in this context is that didn’t know anyone else in the Cote d’Or that hadn’t chaptalized a single wine in 11, I was clearly stepping outside the norm, if only by doing what came naturally.

Nonetheless, I felt the pressure to fall in line with my neighbors, that is until I started paying even more attention to the wines. They didn’t show as wines that were finished with their elevage being that they adjusted so much, reminiscent of someone settling into their seat, finding the right position to be in prior to getting comfortable. It felt odd to have the thought, but, “Maybe the wines aren’t ready yet”. Were the wines going to be excessively oaky, would the wines be less transparent? The oak-forward section of the cycle had all but fallen from my radar and their was a consistent clarity throughout each lineup of barrels within a cuvee. Maybe I could leave the wines in for a bit longer…

I went through all of my older books from the 18th and 19th century looking for any insight into what I was thinking of doing. Not much. Andre Jullien made a reference in 1801 to aging the better wines for a longer period of time. I had another book in my library to check out, Cyrus Redding’s 1833 classic, A History and Description of Modern Wines. This is what I read:

Redding2

Redding1833

Reading this text, I didn’t find any ‘right’ answer, but that was fine. I wasn’t looking for one. What I was hoping for was some historical perspective. It is easy to speak of traditional practices while only speaking about what was done in the preceding generations. Though I greatly prefer to have more of a long view on these sorts of details. It has to be an apples to oranges situation since wines are different today from their early-19th century counterparts, but I must say that what I found in this text along with my own findings with the 2010 Corbeaux as well as the still busy 2011s reinforced my interest in extended aging.

Today, the 2010 Corbeaux has been bottled now for a few weeks, after having aged in used oak for around 40 months. The 2011s are nearly all bottled and showing that with 28 months in barrel did them well. The wines have now settled out with increased depth, transparency and resolve. As the above text suggests, there is no one right time to bottle a wine. Though even when taking into account just how much I have loved my 2011s, there is just so much more to enjoy today.

Two years in used wood is going to be a fixture here. It is a decision that I am making for the wines that we will all be drinking many years from now. I see no need to rush simply for the sake of rushing. I want the best for the wines, and for those that will consume them. Let us be clear that the wines do not move at our speed, our schedules, or dinner dates. They aren’t art, fast food, a trained animal or machine. They move at their own pace. I for one will gladly afford them the patience that they ask for and indeed deserve.

Cheers

Ray

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