A re-corking clinic with Bouchard Père et Fils…


1959 Ancienne Cuvée Carnot

Bouchard Père et Fils are famous for the depth of old wines that they keep and even open up for visitors. It’s also well-known that they re-cork them every 30-years or-so too. So one day in Beaune I took the chance to tag along with Fred Weber and his lucky intern, Michel, who was doing some recorking.

Though the old bottle cellar of the Bouchard family in remparts of Beaune is very atmospheric, and most of the older wines are still kept there, the old wines are moved out of Beaune to Bouchard’s main cuverie on the road between Beaune and Savigny for re-corking. The place itself is very impressive, the cellars dug direct into the alluvial flow (the cone de dejection) of the valley that comes from Savigny. The vast cellars have concrete walkways between the rows of barrels but the barrels themselves – the bottom row, anyway – sit directly on the earth – and there’s space for 4,000 barrels here. Now I see why they once told me that they order as many as 700 new barrels per year!

Practically 200 hectares worth of grapes are vinified here – 130-hectares from the domaine holdings, requiring 140 separate tanks just for the reds. For the harvest, last year, Bouchard used 200 people and 15 trucks for 9 days! “It’s not like a small domaine, with such a scale we have to be almost military in style…

The recorking…

There is something satisfyingly old-school about the re-corking operation here. On this day the target was some magnums of 1959 Volnay 1er cru Les Caillerets ‘Ancienne cuvée Carnot‘ (don’t forget that they have two of these ‘Cuvée Carnotsthe other is white).

Fred Weber confirms that, on average, it’s every thirty years for recorking but it begins with a visual inspection, so some bottles are left with their older seals if they look okay. Recorking is a significant operation chez-Bouchard, about 10% of their production is retained each year for their ‘reserve’ and then there’s wine with another level of importance, their collection for future generations – this amounted to 35,000 bottles last year.

The process that they use is, essentially, unchanged since before the war – probably longer. Each bottle is opened with a simple waiter’s friend corkscrew, tasted for oxidation or cork-related issues. Those bottles that are deemed to be okay will be topped up by sacrificing one bottle as the donor for topping up the others. The new cork is printed with the original vintage but also notes (see image above) the year of recorking.

It’s a potentially divisive subject, but I asked Fred to explain his choices for replacement: “Our choice is natural cork. Despite that we use DIAM for all of our (new white wine) production today, we still re-seal some whites with cork – those older than 1989. We are starting to use DIAM for recorking whites but the old ones are still sealed with cork, for now, as we still have only an experience with DIAM since 2003. All our experience with DIAM, to date, is good but that’s the limit for now.

The 1959 Caillerets

Michel's nose on quality control...These magnums were previously recorked in the early 1990s.

Michel (right) tells me that he notes some, occasional, small differences in the wine-glass but that these magnums were quite consitent. He fully tastes the first half-dozen or so bottles so that he has a good idea of the differences and after that, he just sniffs the remaining bottles to check for deviations.

From the donor bottle these magnums were re-filled to the right level, around 60mm from the top – which Michel diligently measures – then using a pipette, a small dose of SO2 is then added. The bottle is then tipped up and down to make sure that all is properly mixed together before moving it to corking machine.

It’s usually bottles and magnums,” says Michel, “But last year I changed the corks on some 1947 jeroboams! Very occasionally, an old wine gets a replacement bottle as well as a replacement cork – for instance when the neck is chipped but always carrying over as much as possible the solid material that’s in the bottle. Some days you can do 100 magnums, other days you are happy with 30 – every day is different!

You may not know him – but Michel is possibly the guy who tastes the most old wine in the world – move over François Audouze!

Of course it was incumbent on me to also taste some of the bottles. I was happy to try three magnums and as the old saying goes about ‘great bottles,’ all were a little different; 1) structural, deep, powerful, 2) more floral and vibrant finishing and, finally, 3) one thats more structural finishing with a little white mushroom on the nose – all different but all are bottled history!

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