Frederic Magnien, a well-known winemaker on the Cote d’Or, sources grapes throughout the region in order to make single-vineyard wines, which currently total 44 separate cuvees.
More recently after taking over his father’s vineyards (Domaine Michel Magnien) in 2008, Frederic has been making waves on the Cote d’Or with his radical steps in the vineyard and winery in a genuine attempt to promote the individual terroir sites of each of the cuvees he produces. Like a handful of leading producers in the region, he has adopted biodynamic principles, having been certified organic since 2008 and certified biodynamic since 2015. This commitment to organic principles, as well as picking, ploughing and bottling by the lunar calendar, is just one part of the story.
In the winery Frederic has taken a low-intervention stance, restricting almost all mechanical handling of the grapes in order to be as gentle as possible. These measures include punching down and extracting with feet – no mechanical pumping over or punch downs during extraction at all. He uses only the finest natural yeast and no temperature control during fermentation. He does not filter or fine his wines, and is even considering the radical approach of stopping chapitalisation (an endemic habit of Burgundian winemakers in which sugar is added to the blend prior to fermentation to raise alcohol and body of the wine).
Climate change and its effect on Burgundian wines
All these reductions in manipulation have been born from two concerns. The first concern being climate change; the second a rebuttal of technical winemaking developments that produce technically correct wines at the expense of terroir identity.
Frederic states, without doubt, that the weather is getting warmer – in recent years, 1 in every 2 vintages is hot. He explains that 2009 was a very warm year in the Cote d’Or, and that it was a mistake to use a lot of new oak in the top cuvees. In these warm vintages, if Pinot Noir has too much oak the wine becomes too heavy, too one-dimensional and the oak overrides the terroir characteristics of the site. The wines no longer taste of the appellation but more generically of oaked Pinot Noir. Even after almost 10 years of maturation the 2009 wines are dominated by wood flavours. The wines, however good, do not depict the appellation or vineyard sites they come from. It was this realisation that spurred him on to find an alternative elevage process that promotes linear, mineral-driven wines that accurately speak of their unique terroirs.
Oak maturation still remains habitual in production of red burgundy and is essential in maturation due to its unique micro-exchange with oxygen, and it is this elevage that builds structure and complexity on the palate.
It was a fated trip to Canada where Frederic was introduced to a Portuguese producer who aged in amphora jars. On tasting his wines, he fell in love with the linear, mineral-driven style and wanted to know how he could get his wines to taste like that. The answer was the clay amphora. Following this advice he set out to find the right clay vessel for his own wine. On finding a producer in Carcassonne who hand-makes small 160 litre jars, he was happy he had discovered a suitable alternative to oak barrel maturation.
Frederic explains that there are many more reasons to justify opting for the use of more inert vessels during the maturation process apart from the masking of flavour. A key issue when maturing in oak is that the wines can become reductive and stinky, therefore requiring regular racking to introduce more oxygen into the wine which means more movement of the wine using pumps and more risk of bacterial contamination. With the use of amphora jars, and their unique porous characteristics, these rackings are unnecessary. According to Frederic the terracotta jars have the same level of oxygen exchange as oak barrels, but don’t leave the slight drying bitterness that oak tannins (even from old oak) can impart on the wine.
On a slightly more technical note, wine maturation is related to the electromagnetic activity present in the wine. In stainless steel tanks this electromagnetic activity is much higher than in inert vessels such as clay amphorae. This ‘earthing’ of the wine slows down its development and produces, according to Frederic, a better harmonisation between the elements in the wine.
Tasting the Amphora aged wines against the Oak aged wines
Tasting the wines was a rare opportunity to see the wines stripped down to their individual parts. Frederic does not release 100% amphora-aged and 100% oak-aged wines to the market, at least not yet. Depending on the vintage, the site, and characteristics of the wine, he blends the two styles together to get qualities of both. For Frederic the oak-aged cuvees do, for some reason, have more length on the palate but the fruit / terroir characters are more masked and can leave a drying bitterness detectable on the palate.
With the 100% amphora-aged wine it was clear that the wine felt much more harmonious on the palate. Contradictorily, it felt like the wine had more structure, whilst the tannins, fruit and acidity were more interwoven and the wine had a more detectable glycerol edge, seeming to encapsulate the wine and make it feel more complete. Frederic claims the amphora-aged wine has a much stronger primary fruit flavor, which it did, but the oak-aged barrel wasn’t lacking in the department either.
At this tasting, the benefits of the terracotta jars were more structural than flavour-related, and the structure of the oak-aged wine definitely felt less integrated in comparison. The blend of the two (60% oak and 40% terracotta jars) was the best of the lot and Frederic was right regarding the length – which was more noticeable in the blend. The wine had a great purity of fruit, rounded harmonious palate and a great overriding purity of fruit. A wonderful expression of the Morey-Saint-Denis terroir.
Click here to view our selection of part amphora-aged wines.