When the Languedoc’s Domaine Gayda got some of the world’s top wine critics to blind-taste Syrah matured in 9 different vessels in London last month, it was a ground-breaking exercise in sharing a key facet of the winemaker’s craft – how does elevage in completely different vessels alter the wine? And which is more palatable? The results were as surprising as they were useful to winemaker Vincent Chansault and winery chief Tim Ford. So what effect will the learnings have on how they are going to blend future vintages of their flagship wine, the Syrah-based Chemin de Moscou, and how will it affect sales?
15,000 litres of the same Syrah was matured for nine months in nine different vessels including terracotta, sandstone, polyethylene, concrete, steel, oak – in various sizes and ages.
If you wanted to give your flagship wine a name that would allow it to become an international bestseller in all foreign markets, you might avoid putting the word Moscow in it. But with Chemin de Moscou, made by Languedoc-based Domaine Gayda, this is exactly what they did.
From 2004 onwards Gayda set out to make Chemin de Moscou the quintessential Languedoc wine that delivers quality and interest every vintage without bearing the price tag of various neighbouring ‘icon’ wines. Its name is quintessentially Languedoc too – it is the winery’s address that reflects the region’s Communist ties and allegiances – the road of the village that led to the tree where soldiers returning from the Franco-Prussian war used to gather for political meetings.
Chemin de Moscou is one of 18 wines that the winery produces, is a Syrah-dominant blend, and typifies everything good that has happened to the Languedoc-Roussillon in the past 20 years in terms of improved viticulture, investment and marketing. Critics Jancis Robinson, Andrew Jefford, Stephen Spurrier and Jeb Dunnock have long been admirers as have judges on wine competitions who regularly give it gongs.
Chemin de Moscou has always been matured in three year old French oak barrels for 21 months before release, but Gayda wanted to sense check this and devised an ingenious way of doing this. What if, after vinification, the same Syrah was then matured in a wide variety of vessels (including the usual barrels) and then the different wines blind-tasted by world-leading wine critics to see what differences can be detected?
The tasting, titled ‘9 Vessels’, has already been conducted with the British press in London, with the Dutch press and also a special one-off with The Buyer.
The result has been a fascinating, shared learning experience where you can taste first hand what effect on-trend vessels such as a concrete egg has made to the wine compared with, say, stainless steel or French oak barrels of various ages.
How the learnings will be used by the Domaine
For Gayda’s winemaker Vincent Chansault and winery chief Tim Ford, the tasting has also been part of their own learning curve to see how wine evolves in vessels of varying materials, sizes and shapes – to ‘kick the tyres’ on their existing process but also look to see if they can take the blend of Chemin de Moscou into different directions.
“But it is a life-sized experiment not a lab-sized one,” says Chansault.
Gayda chief Tim Ford thinks it important for winemakers to be progressive and experiment with different vessels and judge first hand whether it brings improvements or not. “We need to decide for ourselves first and not listen to the marketing noise,” he says, referring to changes in winemaking fashion that might start favouring the use of concrete and sandstone over traditional barrels.
For winemaker Vincent Chansault 9 Vessels has given him a new box of toys – a range of new vessels and 15,000 litres of the same Syrah that show distinct differences according to what they have been matured in.
“We already have a lot of different vineyards and soils in the region and now with a new mix of vessels I can look at adding complexity and texture in a good way,” he says, “There are things I like in the wine from all of the different vessels but what is really good is that I can get as much complexity into Chemin de Moscou as possible.”
Useful, particularly with vintage variation.
With 50 different vineyard plots – or parcelles – used in the final blend, Chansault also envisages the possibility of using different vessels for different sites. He adds that, since 2015, no sulphur has been used during vinification which has resulted in much brighter fruit, another reason for conducting the trial. Although he envisages always maturing his Syrah between 18 and 24 months, the results of the 9 Vessels tasting is helping him to be more precise.
“Sometimes the wine is not gaining anything more in that time, and some batches should have been out of oak earlier,” he says.
For Ford the feedback Gayda has received from doing the exercise has been one of re-assurance. “You absorb the feedback, you intellectualise it, you take it on board, and you go slowly, you absorb what people are saying but you don’t have a knee-jerk reaction and suddenly change things…. and the comments we’ve had just reassures us in the whole process.”
The final blending of Chemin de Moscou is a key process for Gayda – for a few days every year Mark Kent from South African winery Boekenhoutskloof travels to Gayda to help Chansault (a former winemaker there) make decisions on the final blend, which Ford likens to a jigsaw puzzle; the learnings from 9 Vessels helping the team to put it together.
So which came first? The barrel or the egg?
Gayda has had a variety of different vessels for some years in which it has made limited edition cuvées but this was the first time that all nine have been used with the same wine.
The vineyard chosen for the 9 Vessels trial, Col de la Dona, is a nine hectare site in the Roussillon that has been a major component of Chemin de Moscou since 2007 but has only been owned by Gayda since the 2018 harvest. It is a low yielding site 20km from the Mediterranean, east-facing and all on pure schist. There is little variation within the terroir – the fruit being of a consistently high quality with nice ripe tannins.
Once fermented the Syrah was then transferred into the nine vessels:
At the tasting the wines were tasted blind in the following order. All of the samples had bright, black fruits (blackberry, mulberry) and varying degrees of spiciness and structure.
500 litres 1 year old French oak barrel
Aromatics slightly dumb, attractive black fruits, tannins less well integrated,
1000 litres sandstone jar
Pretty floral notes (violets, rose), lusher fruit, grippier tannins, great taste/ profile
228 litres 3 year old French oak barrel
Cedary wood and cake spice on nose, fresh, juicy palate, fine-grained tannins less nuanced, instantly likeable ‘crowd pleaser’
1600 litres concrete egg
Savoury element to aromatics, very pure wilder bramble fruit, smooth stone texture, slight chalky finish
228 litres 1 year old French oak barrel
Sweeter, richer fruit on nose, more international, grainier texture, hit of vanilla on the finish
1500 litres stainless steel tank
More garrigue herbs on nose, mouth-filling, richer, pure fruit, dry citrusy finish
1000 litres high density polyethylene egg
(replicates the porosity of a 1 year old oak barrel without the wood)
Immediately fresh and bright, lovely balance, attractive grippy tannin
700 litres terracotta egg
Less overtly inviting, quite tight, less evolved, tannins not so well integrated, ‘flatter’ with some of the fruit lost
2000 litres oak foudre
Weird nose. Oxidised? Much more primary all round, lighter and more tannic
At The Buyer tasting held at Domaine Gayda, my favourite two wines were from Sandstone jar and Concrete egg with the 228 litre 3 year old French oak barrel third favourite.
At the 9 Vessels tasting held at 67 Pall Mall and at the Dutch press tasting the clear favourite was the 228 litre 3 year old French oak barrel.
Before the tasting Tim Ford said that Vincent and the team would not be making any knee-jerk reaction based on whatever feedback the critics and trade made. But the results could not have been sweeter – confirming that, after one year maturation at least, the favoured vessel the 228 litre 3 year old barrel is the one that they are currently using for Chemin de Moscou Syrah.
The next stage is for the exercise to be repeated with the same critics the same time next year.
How the results will affect sales
Although the primary motivation behind investing in and staging such a complex tasting exercise as 9 Vessels was viticultural the interest generated by the tastings will not do sales of Chemin de Moscou any harm whatsoever.
Of the 120,000 bottles of Chemin de Moscou that Gayda produces annually, the lion’s share is snaffled up by the French premium on-trade. Sales in the UK have been limited in comparison.
New Generation Wines chief James Booth, who imports Gayda’s wines into the UK is aiming to replicate the wine’s French success on UK soils with his sales team set to convey the message that “no serious wine list is complete without Chemin de Moscou (or at least one Gayda Syrah) which offers such quality and value compared to similar wines from other parts of the world ie not just France but for example Australia and elsewhere.”
Another sales rationale was for Gayda to have a clear message around a real area of expertise – Gayda is serious about Syrah and knows as much about it as anyone else in South France.
“There are so many tastings and opportunities to taste, dine, meet winemakers, particularly in London, that it is more important than ever to stand out,” says Booth “To demonstrate that you are approaching your wines in an intelligent, inquisitive, progressive way seems to be the approach with the most substance and longevity. Gayda certainly aroused great interest by sharing their experimentation with a serious room of press and trade.”