One year, one vineyard, one wine, nine vessels.
We join Languedoc winemakers, Domaine Gayda, and their UK distributors, New Generation, for a special tasting at 67 Pall Mall, exploring how the taste and texture of the same wine is changed by what it is aged in.
This is one of those wonderfully things that you hear going on in the drinks industry that, to the outside ear, sounds like a pointless exercise in booze nerdiness and hedonistic eccentricity. However, there is in fact a very concrete reason behind winemaker Vincent Chansault’s experiment.
The world of wine and the drinkers who consume it are changing. Whereas once, opening a bottle of the good stuff would have come with all kinds of ceremony – from picking a bottle laid to rest under the stairs for a number of years, to carefully pouring it into a carafe and timing dinner to coincide with prime wine oxidisation – now, consumers are looking for something that is perfectly aged on purchase. As drinkers’ habits change, wineries have to alter their practices to match.
As such, Domaine Gayda has been experimenting with revised techniques since 2012 to see what can be done to make their wines sing from the moment a bottle is opened.
Enter, the “Seriously Syrah” Nine Vessel Tasting.
We settle down and watch as the nine glasses in front of us are graced with Syrah from different, covered bottles. As they are filled, Vincent tells us how the 100% Syrah grapes have come from 30 year old vines from their Col de la Dona vineyard – a slate soil, sloped, south-east-facing block 20km from the sea. Organic grapes have been handpicked during the first week of September and undergo natural fermentation in stainless steel, before being pressed and placed in different vessels before the end of October. The wines we are due to taste have aged for nine months so far but will need at once more year before bottling, giving us the rare chance to sample unfinished wine – a very brave move by a winemaker who clearly believes in the quality of his creations!
Managing Director, Tim Ford jocularly chimes in to say that he really hopes that we’ll all love the much cheaper option of the stainless steel ageing instead of the oak barrels. A well-meaning chuckle ripples through the room of top sommeliers and wine writers who from experience know that, sadly for Tim, this is unlikely to be the case.
Vincent gives the go-ahead and we dive into our blind tasting, formulating our opinions and trying our hand at guessing what each is aged in before being enlightened.
Domain Gayda Nine Vessel Syrah Tasting
Stainless Steel (1,500 litres)
As an inert vessel, this is the benchmark for the liquid and a good means to compare those aged in other vessels.
There is initial, bright fruit on the palate but little evolution of the wine and tannins and those definite green, sappy notes of young wine.
Sandstone Jar (1,000 litres)
Angular in shape and made from a low porosity material that is extremely resistant to chemical and temperature changes, this is the vessel that allows the least oxygen in. Therefore, the wine that is produces is tight, savoury and reductive with very little discernable fruit.
Terracotta Egg (700 litres)
The most porous of all the vessels due to the material, meaning that oxygen has the greatest contact with the wine. This paired with the egg shape allowing for the most stirring of the lees (dead yeast cells that add beneficial texture and flavour) gives the wine an incredible evolved and juicy, fruit-forward palate. This was probably our favourite wine and was astonishing for a nine-month aged Syrah, but we imagine the fruit may become overripe and be a bit much with further ageing. Time will tell!
Concrete Egg (1,600 litres)
Similar to the terracotta egg, the shape allows for a good deal of wine and lees movement. However, unlike the other, concrete is inert and cool, meaning there is much less oxygenation. The result is a prevalence of floral notes and a clean, fresh minerality that is entirely at adds with the terracotta-aged wine.
Plastic (High Density Polyethylene) Egg (1,000 litres)
An interesting case of an inert vessel with lees convection (again, due to the egg shape), reproducing the same oxygen ingression (17mg per litre per year) as from a new barrel. Perfume on the nose doesn’t follow through on the palate but tannins are a bit grippier due to the oxygen.
Oak Foudre (2,000 litres)
The large barrel means there is less oak effect than in barrels but good oxygen exchange and movement, culminating in ripe, dark fruit on the nose, juicy tannins and well-structured acidity.
1-Year-Old Oak Barrel (500 litres)
A young, lightly toasted barrel that gives produces a shy wine that doesn’t’ give much away on the nose. There is some hint to oak flavour and structured tannins but this needs longer in barrel to produce anything noteworthy.
1-Year-Old Oak Barrel (228 litres)
Smaller barrels mean more oak-contact. The result is, unsurprisingly, more oak flavour and more sucking tannic structure. However, the wine lacks balance in terms of flavour complexity. Again, time will tell as barrel-ageing is a slow process that cannot and should not be rushed.
3-Years-Old Oak Barrel (228 litres)
Two-years older than the other barrels used, the extra age is definitely felt. The wine produced is a classic Languedoc Syrah with a creamy structure and refined palate. It will be interesting to see if further aging pushes this wine too far.
What did we learn?
It was quite remarkable to witness the breadth of the spectrum of tastes and textures created by vessels in a short nine-month period!
Unfortunately for Tim and his budget, stainless steel produced one of the least interesting wines, with classic barrels giving the excepted and appreciated flavours for which the region is known.
However, our surprise take away was that the modern eggs were able to produce exciting and balanced liquids that could certainly be used, perhaps in combination with more traditional methods, to create dynamic modern wines at Domaine Gayda and beyond.
Buy Domaine Gayda Syrah
Domaine Gayda Cepage Syrah 2014 Wine 75 cl (Case of 3) – £10.38 per bottle