Dead wood?

barrel ageing People & Places Articles
  • Friday 20 January 2006

We’re all familiar with the buttery characteristics of oak-aged wines, but has their day been and gone? GUY WOODWARD finds the answer is far from a barrel of laughs

OF THE VARIOUS ways in which wine writers get a feeling for the strength of a market, few are more reliable than taking a look at their magazine’s own revenue streams. The same applies for barrel makers.

‘When wineries meet their financial advisors to look at how they can save money, the first thing they’re told to slash is their advertising budget,’ says Pascal Collotte, general manager of barrel making company Saury. ‘Next is oak.’

And so it has proved in recent years, as producers – notably in France – have been squeezed by New World competition. ‘The use of new oak is decreasing,’ says Collotte. But is this driven solely by economic factors, or are consumers also exerting an influence?

There is no doubt that the buttery sweetness of oak is less prominent in many of today’s mid-market wines than it was a few years ago. Many critics attribute this to producers adapting to changing consumer taste. The heavy mouthfeel of oak-dominated wines can be tiring, and European critics have reacted against what some have dismissed as a fad. ‘People aren’t just after sweet fruit, they want a more elegant side,’ says Denis Sabouret of the Nadalié cooperage. And that doesn’t come from loads of vanilla.

But Collotte is not alone in claiming that the extent of a winery’s use of oak is not merely governed by its intentions for the wine’s final taste profile. ‘It’s not always a taste-oriented decision,’ he says. Patrick Verde of Seguin-Moreau agrees: ‘The main reason [to use less new oak] is an economic one, especially for wineries promoting wines for distribution on the mass market, where there’s huge pressure on prices. They can’t afford new barrels.

‘The wineries promoting premium wines still use new oak. Because of their name and image, they’re less affected by price points, and the ageing of a prestigious wine can’t be made in anything but wood. So economic reasons are stronger than fashion.’

Can it be that simple? If you’re a classed growth, or a rich Californian giant, you automatically smother your wines with oak, and if you’re a small producer you don’t? Well, yes and no…

Thin, dilute wine from high yields is less equipped to handle new oak than big, fruity wines from concentrated, low yields. So when cash-rich Californian wineries started lavishing new oak on their high-fruit wines, and found the style well received by domestic critics, top-end Bordeaux producers took note.

‘Tastes are governed by the US and UK wine press,’ says Collotte. ‘Particularly with the American market, where oak is viewed as a necessary luxury. But if you use 100% new oak, you need low yields to handle it, so it’s expensive. The dollar has decreased in value in recent years, and we were anxious about our barrel sales there. But our sales have increased. Why? The market is doing well…’

The same can’t be said of France, and Bordeaux in particular. ‘Some wineries in Bordeaux were using a lot of oak, with new barrels every year,’ says Nadine Auger Gaztambide of Tonnellerie Sylvain. ‘It was a fashion thing, but it was detrimental to the wine.’ Particularly wine not equipped to deal with it, and wineries not equipped to pay for it. Hence the dropping off in use among cru bourgeois and unclassed estates now.

Verde claims it is not the fashion for new oak that has tailed off, but that for an oaky taste. ‘Barrels must answer to specific criteria that don’t enhance the woody taste but reveal the fruit,’ he says. ‘Wood must integrate itself in the wine and this is only achieved through controlled maturation of the wood and special care in toasting.’

‘I can’t say that we now do more light toasting that medium toasting,’ says Gaztambide. ‘But we don’t do a lot of high toasting – the customer wants more fruit and less oak now.’

All of which means that cooperages need to come up with new ways of making oak-attractive ageing tools. ‘It doesn’t matter whether it’s driven by taste or economics, the drop in demand is a reality,’ says Jaboulet. ‘So we need to prove that barrel ageing can provide more complexity than just vanilla.’

‘Winemakers have understood that it’s better to respect the wine and give it only the new oak it needs,’ says Gaztambide. ‘They now try to find the balance between new oak and no oak. The customer and the winemaker both want an elegant wine with a subtlety of taste.’

Sylvain has conducted experiments on the ellagitanins (the oak components that bring bitterness to wine) and found that they decrease during ageing. ‘So we’re using more aged oak, fewer burned barrels and a toasting that respects the wood and the wine.’

Equally, Seguin Moreau claims to have identified the formula for arriving at the optimum tannic and aromatic wood suitable for quality wines for ageing. It intends to roll the product out this year, but maintains that customised barrels are equally important.

Whatever the formula, winemakers will be watching with interest. As ever, though, it all comes down to the wine, for, as even Collotte admits: ‘You don’t make great wine in a barrel.’

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