The Sylvain Laboratory: Researching to Achieve Excellence

Guest blog from ITek Wine and the Sylvain Laboratory

” A good cooper must understand the wine maker’s problems and be able to provide appropriate solutions.”

Don’t look for lab tables or test tubes; in this research laboratory the star is wood. We could imagine that it was simply a barrel workshop, but it is here that tests are made to explore all the potentialities of the wood and their impact on the wine, depending on the grape varieties used and the feature we are looking for.

Why install a Research & Development laboratory in the Château La Rose Perrière? Simply because this laboratory does research for the Tonnellerie Sylvain.

Bruno Célèrier has been the Technical Manager of La Rose Perrière since 2007. He has been running the research laboratory ever since in close collaboration with Jean Luc Sylvain and Claire Sylvain, who is a trained chemical engineer and biologist.

The work has several aims

Firstly, optimisation of the cooper’s barrel making techniques.

This is clearly a question of improving production processes to provide the customer with a highly dependable product. In this field the tests performed mainly concern the aromatic components of the wood, the drying time, the toasting, the homogeneity of our barrels, etc.

Let’s have a look at the homogeneity of the barrels as this is obviously the Tonnellerie Sylvain trademark. What are we talking about here?

Two elements contribute to this characteristic :

  • The toasting of the barrel, a process that has been mastered for years by many coopers.
  • And the assembly of the staves which requires special skills (choice of wood according to the species, grain and production area) because like a great wine a great barrel is an assembly.

By experience acquired over many years Tonnellerie Sylvain has studied and mapped French forests. Four main regions are identified, all in the northern part of France.

Wood is processed but it remains an agricultural product which is influenced by the land it is grown on. Hence each forestry region offers characteristics specific to its origins and climate.

This knowledge of the forests is the fruit of grass roots experience (Jean Luc Sylvain and his children own a stave mill and they choose their wood before it is felled) and the results of laboratory tests. Test barrels are made and then tasted by a group of experts to find the best combination of woods.

The leading wine producers demand regularity in their barrels, because it influences to a significant extent the wine’s organoleptic qualities, and after 60 years experience Tonnellerie Sylvain is a benchmark for regularity.

The second aim of the Tonnellerie SYLVAIN laboratory is to constantly improve the quality of the advice they give to their customers.

To this end, every 6 months the company’s sales and technical teams taste wines made from different grape varieties aged in test barrels. For the purpose of these tests the Sylvain family has planted various autochtonous or indigenous grape varieties on their land.

  • Red: Merlot, Cabernet franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Shiraz and Malbec.
  • White: Sauvignon, Semillon, Muscadelle and Chardonnay.

The purpose of these experiments is to understand the association of the characteristics of the wood with the characteristics of the grapes and finally to assess the impact of the wood on the wine over time. The principle is to examine the process and the organoleptic characteristics during production to be able to give pertinent advice to their customers about the planting of their vineyards and the assemblies that they wish to perform.

The third aim is the optimisation of the process of use of the barrels

The aim is to assist the purchasers of barrels in their wine making techniques.

To illustrate the last point, let’s take the example of the 500 l “Integral Vinification” barrel. The principle is simple. It consists of putting the grapes in these containers just after harvesting and doing the whole wine making process in the same container

During conventional fermentation in barrels, we sometimes observe after the wine is put in the barrel and in the months that follow, significant or even very strong wood flavouring.

With the 500l Vinification Intégrale barrel the fermentation takes place in an environment of toasted new wood. This makes it possible to marry the aromas and tannins of the wood with those of the grapes, and it is this marriage that gives “wooded” wine “built-in” elegance and finesse with the most perfect harmony between the wine and the wood.

A controlled experimental process

Every experiment carried out in the laboratory follows the same process : A problem > A test protocol >Continuous monitoring > Organoleptical / or, chemical analyses >Test reports and reports on decisions > Conclusions At the end of this process the experiments are stopped, continued or are orientated in another direction.

Our references for the 500 L “Vinification Intégrale” barrel:

  • Château de CARLES, Fronsac
  • Château DASSAULT, Grand Cru Classé de Saint-Emilion
  • Château BARDE HAUT, Saint émilion Grand Cru
  • Château CLOS L’EGLISE, Pomerol
  • Château BEAUSEJOUR BECOT, Saint émilion Grand Cru
  • Château VALANDRAUD, Saint émilion Grand Cru
  • Château PHELAN SEGUR, Saint Estèphe
  • Château RAMAGE LABATISSE, Saint Sauveur, Crus Bourgeois
  • Château TROPLONG MONDOT, 1er grand cru classé Saint Emilion

Chronicle of a successful experiment

  • From the start in 2007: The Technical Manager of the winery made the choice of a capacity of 500l for the “Vinification Intégrale” because it suited economic, practical and of course taste criteria.The vinification barrel is a synthesis of the barrel and the stainless steel tank. The wine stays in the barrel for the duration of the vinification; the malolactic fermentation takes place afterwards. During this period the 500l barrel rotates to allow the extraction of the tannins and the aromas of the grapes.
  •  2008/2009 :The tests performed after these experiments showed that the wine was “under wined”, in other words the extraction was insufficient.
    The Technical Manager is working on this question to find solutions and develop a “marc breaker” (an oak plank fixed by two brackets in the top third of the height of the the barrel). The test protocol then requires barrels with rotation and barrels with rotation + pressing; at the same time the standard wine is vinified in a conventional stainless steel tank.
  • 2010: To further improve extraction and reveal the wine, new tests were performed; racking was added to the techniques of extraction rotation + pressing.The results obtained were much better and we understood that mechanical extraction is too fast when compared with this mixture of finer and more accurate manual techniques. The tastings after these tests suggest that we can go still further to find the tannins in the wine and refine them even more.
  • In 2014: A new element completed the extraction : infusion.
    After the alcoholic fermentation, when the barrel contained about 25% of empty space above the wine (the space between the surface of the wine and the top of the barrel), the management team decided to fill the barrel completely. The marc on the surface is then submerged; this called infusion of the tannins. The first organoleptic analyses showed that the technique provides superb tannin quality. The results are encouraging.
  • From 2016: Full scale tests : the first tests were carried out on Château La Rose Perrière.
    Infusion of the tannins from the start of the vinification makes it necessary to create a new tool made from wood and stainless steel to hold the marc in the centre of the tank.
  • 2017: So, rotation + extraction + infusion; does this optimize the chemistry of the wine? The results obtained with Cabernet are impressive and with Merlot it is possible to go even further ! What is remarkable and stimulating in the research, is that every time we think we have achieved the goal, a new quality challenge appears.

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