The Meaning of ‘Oak-Aged’

A couple of weeks ago in Bristol Wine Blog I wrote about an oak-aged wine. It seems I didn’t explain the term ‘oak-aged’ or say how can you tell if a wine tastes ‘oaky’?

The words relate to the fact that wine has to be made and stored in some kind of container before it is bottled ready for sale and the material used for that container will have an effect on how the wine tastes. Fermentation and storage tanks will often be made of stainless steel, which is inert, that is it has no flavour of its own.

Ch Dauzac Fermentation tanksWines made and stored in such tanks (pictured above) will taste fresh and clean and fruit flavours are most likely to predominate; typically, we might talk about the wine tasting of citrus or melon or tropical fruits. The same would be true of other neutral containers such as those made from concrete or glass.

Ch Dauzac barrelOn the other hand, the winemaker might use wooden barrels – large as above or much smaller – (usually made of oak, but other woods like chestnut can sometimes be used) to ferment or store the wine in. Wood is not inert – the grain is very slightly porous; not enough to allow the liquid to seep out, but sufficient to allow tiny amounts of air in. This air softens the wine slightly and changes its character. Also, depending on the age of the barrel, the wood itself may have a flavour which is transmitted into the wine; this is the ‘oaky’ taste I referred to and can include flavours like cinnamon, cloves or other spices, vanilla, toast, cigar boxes or pencil shavings. In all these cases, the flavours of the fruit should still be there but they will no longer be the principal taste.

If you want to sample the difference, I suggest you get 2 bottles of Rioja – 1 labelled Gran Reserva and the other without the words Crianza or Reserva on the label and taste them alongside one another. The Gran Reserva will be the oaky one.

Final question: is an oaked wine better than an unoaked? It all depends on your palate but, for me, there is a place for both.

 

 

 

Oaked with Smoked?

I’m usually quite dismissive of some of the common food and wine matching tips. Especially the one about white wine with fish and chicken, red wine with red meat. It’s just too simple and ignores the fact that the flavour to match in any dish is often the sauce rather than the main ingredient. And, in any case, everyone’s taste is different so why not drink what you like rather than anyone else’s suggestion of the ‘right’ wine?

But there is a saying that ‘with smoked try oaked’. Sounds a bit too glib to be true but I put it to the test recently anyway. We’d bought some delicious hot-smoked salmon fillets from Brown and Forrest, an artisan smokery not far from us, and decided to use them as a sauce over some fresh pasta. To accompany the dish, we opened a bottle of Crasto white from Portugal’s Douro region (Great Western Wine, £16.95).

Crasto white

A blend of 2 local grapes, Verdelho and Viosinho that had been oak aged for 6 months. On first sniff, the wine was decidedly oaky and in the mouth that was the main sensation that came through before we tasted it with the food. But, with the smoky, fishy pasta sauce (the flavours softened with some Crème Fraiche), the oakiness became much more restrained and harmonious and the wine’s creamy, rich character revealed itself.

It might not have been the wine I would instinctively have chosen with the dish but, having tasted it, I have to admit that, in this case, both my wife and I agreed that with smoked try oaked. In fact, my wife actually thought that something a bit oakier might have been even better.

So, there you have it – sometimes these food and wine matching sayings do work. Just don’t always rely on them!

What Kind of Chardonnay?

ChardonnayAsk many wine lovers to name their favourite white wine grape and they will reply unhesitatingly ‘Chardonnay’.  Yet, you’ll also find plenty who take precisely the opposite view; so much so that I have been persuaded to run an ‘Anything but Chardonnay’ course at Stoke Lodge Centre next spring.  So, why the extreme difference of views?

The answer is simple: Chardonnay is so versatile in where it grows and so amenable to different treatments in the winery that you can fairly say that no two examples are the same. 

Taste Chardonnay from a cool climate, like Chablis for example, and you get crisp, citrus or green apple flavours.  A little warmer, perhaps around Pouilly Fuissé, and that turns into ripe pear or peach.  Further south in France or in parts of Australia and California that are warmer still will give quite tropical flavours – pineapple or melon. 

And all that variety before the winemaker gets to work.  Chardonnay is quite a favourite with winemakers as they often see it as a blank canvas, ready to be manipulated into just the sort of wine that they, or their customers, want.  For example, they can put it through malolactic fermentation (a process that softens the harsher acids and creates a creamy, buttery texture) or they can leave the wine on the lees for a while to add richness or, then again, they can use oak barrels – new or older – to add woody, spicy flavours.  And, of course, they can put it through a 2nd fermentation and make Champagne or sparkling wine.

Or, they can do none of these; ferment and mature in stainless steel tanks and simply let the delicious, ripe fruit shine through. 

Vire ClessePierre Ponnelle’s Viré Clessé from southern Burgundy (Majestic, £13.99) is a perfect example of this ‘less is more’ approach.  Delightfully fresh and clean with attractive citrus and peach flavours; no oak, just very pure fruit and excellent length. 

I’d recommend it to Chardonnay lovers and haters alike – but, as you’ve seen, it’s just one of many possible styles of wine from this most versatile of all grapes.  If this one isn’t to your taste, don’t give up on the variety, just keep looking.

Educating a Wine

There are many ways a label can tell customers that the wine in the bottle has been influenced by oak: the mention of barrel, barrique or cask, the French élevé en chêne (raised in oak) or simply the word oaked or some similar reference.   It can also be implied by the use of spicy or smoky, although neither of those is definitive.  But some words I saw on a red Bordeaux label recently gave a whole new meaning to oak ageing and its purpose: rather than using ‘élevé’, this producer said that his wine was ‘éduqué en fûts de chêne’ (literally, educated or brought up in oak barrels).

futs-de-chene

By doing this, he is comparing the ageing of his wine to the bringing up of his children.  Is that a reasonable comparison?  I’d say yes.  I often tell groups that wine is a living thing; good wines, especially, go through a distinct youthful stage, followed sometimes by difficult teenage years, then a comfortable middle age, when the wine is at its peak, before reaching old age and, if you keep it too long, extreme old age.

So, the upbringing analogy is a good one.  The producer has taken his newly made wine, full of bright young fruit and probably quite firm tannins, and put it into oak barrels.  What happens in those barrels is interesting: oak is slightly porous – not porous enough for the wine to leak out, but porous enough for tiny amounts of air to get in.  The air reacts with the wine, softening the tannins and making the wine more rounded and harmonious.  In addition, if the barrels are new (or reasonably new), they might also impart an oaky or smoky flavour to the wine, changing it further.

In this way, the raw young wine is transformed into a rounded, characterful bottle ready to take its place at table.  Just like turning a brash infant into a mature adult.  So, a wine, like a person can, indeed, be ‘éduqué’.