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“These foudres embody efforts to hone our style”

Several of the outstanding cuvées that have emerged from Bernard Massard’s cellar in Grevenmacher were matured for several months in huge 3,700-litre oak barrels known as foudres. The use of these containers cherished by its CEO, Antoine Clasen, has become part of the company’s unique identity, and it purchased twelve more of them last year.

In the labyrinthine corridors of the large cellar adjoining the bridge crossing the German border, Antoine Clasen guides us to an alcove, where spotlights illuminate twelve imposing foudres. Each of these large oak containers, which are taller than they are wide, hold 3,700 litres of wine. These particular foudres are virtually brand new, as they were delivered less than two years ago. They are not the only ones owned by Bernard Massard – eight foudres identical to these ones and two smaller ones (1,500 litres) are kept in another room. They were all made in the workshops of the Eder cooperage in Germany.

Foudres are not widely used on the Moselle. The reason Antoine Clasen is such an advocate is that they give wines character without spoiling them. It’s been thirty years already since the company purchased its first two 1,500-litre foudres. They are used to contain the company’s two great Rieslings – Ahn Palmberg and Groärd (a parcel on the Grevenmacher Fels) from Domaine Clos des Rochers, the Clasen family’s personal vineyards. “Foudres help oxygenate wines without giving them the woody character you get with standard barriques (editor’s note – which hold 225 litres).” Palmberg and Groärd are indisputably some of the Luxembourg Moselle’s finest Rieslings, and thus stand testament to the soundness of this method.

It therefore made perfect sense for Bernard Massard to increase its stock. Twenty new foudres have been added in less than ten years, representing a significant investment. Large sums were spent both on purchasing these items and optimising their storage conditions. “We noticed that the wood was tending to warp a little,” says Antoine Clasen. “This was because the cellar was slightly too dry, so we had to set up misters to maintain an ideal level of humidity.” The foudres are now set to go the distance, and will last at least three to four decades.

Bernard Massard’s young CEO is convinced that all these efforts are worthwhile. “Although it’s true they are very beautiful, they’re not just here to look pretty,” he smiles. “The result is in the bottle!  Our entire philosophy is focused on one objective – continual improvement. These foudres are part of this approach and embody efforts to hone our style.”

Of course not all wines leaving the cellar have been matured in these fine containers. It may even come as a surprise to hear that none of the red wines are kept in them, as the large foudres are used only for white wines … and sparkling wines in particular. “Approximately 30% of the base wines used for the vintage Bernard Massard crémant are matured in foudres and we have increased this to 100% for the Clos des Rochers crémant in the past two years,” says Antoine Clasen.

The latter is one of the jewels in the estate’s crown and Antoine Clasen places great stock in that extra bit of soul that comes courtesy of maturation in foudres. After the base wines have been fermented in stainless steel vats, they are blended and kept for six months to a year in foudres. “With this maturation technique, the fact the wine has been kept in wooden containers is slightly perceptible, although this disappears quickly after disgorging. The three years the wine spends ageing on fine lees are sufficient for it to absorb this flavour. On drinking, it is discernible despite the lack of odour, and the wine gains breadth without this compromising its freshness.”

This treatment is also given to a still wine cuvée – the new Petite Fleur des Rochers, a Chardonnay produced from young vines planted on the Grevenmacher Fels, which is the company’s choice terroir. “At first, we didn’t consider using foudres for this wine,” reminisces Antoine Clasen. “However, on tasting it, we realised that although it was good, it was missing something, and that it could benefit from the wood. Since we weren’t interested in making an excessively woody American-style Chardonnay, we decided to put it in a foudre rather than in a barrique.” Once again, the results are evident. The Petite Fleur des Rochers is a Chardonnay that is at once very well-structured, broad and lively. “I am very happy with this wine,” smiles Antoine Clasen. “The foudre helps magnify the aromas of the grape variety and the Fels, a highly expressive terroir whose minerality bursts forth after a year or two in the bottle.”

Foudre and barrique – two philosophies

Wines kept in foudres are always less woody than those kept in barriques, which ultimately makes sense. Firstly, a much smaller surface area of wine is in contact with the wood in relation to the total wine volume when a large container is used. And secondly, the object’s structure itself is different. The staves used to make foudres are much thicker than those used to build a standard barrel, thus significantly limiting exchanges between the wine and external oxygen. This oxygenation is further restricted in Bernard Massard foudres, since the foudres are made from high-altitude oak, which grows more slowly than low-altitude oak, resulting in higher density and a tighter grain.

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