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Jefford on Monday: Tree Time

Oak, particularly new French oak, is the most expensive container you can choose in which to age your new wines. We've all damned wines for being over-oaked. "This wine needs more oak," by contrast, is a comment I’ve never heard from anyone. The imbalance is striking. Is all that money being wasted?

Racking at La Mission Haut Brion

Not necessarily. Successful oaking, most of us would agree, is when oak fills out, supports and amplifies a wine to seamless and impalpable effect. Since oak (and especially new oak) carries an overt and easily recognizable sensorial print, pointing your finger – or your tongue – at any perceived excess is a straightforward matter. Indeed, together with spotting tca in a ‘corked’ wine, it might even be the easiest comment of all to make about a wine. Tastes vary in this respect, though; my over-oaked wine may taste just right to you (or vice versa).

Working out that a wine is ‘under-oaked’, by contrast, is no easy matter. If I feel dissatisfied with such a wine, I will probably complain about something else altogether. An aggressive flavour profile, perhaps; the stinkiness of reduction; or an overall lack of harmony and equilibrium. It’s an impressive feat to imagine such a wine with another eight months in oak, or with 70 per cent rather than 20 per cent new oak, or with ten months in second-use oak rather than in concrete tanks. Extra time in oak, remember, may actually lessen rather than intensify the perceived ‘oakiness’ of a wine. The degree of toasting of the staves is another variable with huge sensorial significance; and the number of rackings is a third important decision.

‘Oak’, in fact, is about much more than ‘oakiness’. What the Riojans call ‘noble oxidation’ is at least as important as any kind of flavour enhancement, and there is no other container which can readily duplicate the oxidative effects of barrels and three-monthly rackings. (Wood is porous, and barrels are a kind of three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle.) The nourishing, fattening relationship between wines — even red wines — and their maternal lees, too, has never been considered more important than it is today, and small oak barrels permit a much higher contact ratio with lees than alternative containers. If we say wines are ‘over-oaked’, of course, we are normally referring to the flavour print rather than any oxidative fatigue, or some misconception of lees contact.

All of that said, there is no doubt that new oak is less widely used in the fine wine world today than a decade ago. Peter Sisseck’s journey with Pingus from ‘200% new oak’ for some parcels to no new oak at all on the 2008 vintage (reported here) is headline-grabbing, but in every region I have traveled to in the last twelve months, I’ve heard the same story.

“Like everyone,” Jean-Guillaume Prats at Cos d’Estournel told me this spring, “we’ve reduced our percentage of new wood” – down to between 60 and 80 per cent, in Cos’s case, with seven months on lees. Malolactic fermentation in barrique is no longer the dogma of the day – Cos has reverted to doing it in its conical stainless steel tanks. I barely saw a new cask during my winter visit to Chablis, while any overt oakiness is almost a badge of shame for the avant-garde in Australia’s Victoria (though less so in South Australia). Visits to Châteauneuf and to Bandol were telling, in that both regions flirted with small oak and new oak in the face of tradition a decade ago, but both have backed briskly away since. Much the same was true as I toured Piedmont. The makers of botte and foudres, by contrast, have full order-books, and the 600-litre demi-muids are a much commoner sight in cellars than they were a decade ago.

Honestly, I’m thrilled. Subtlety, savouriness and a widening of the general allusive range are all benefits of reduced new-oak or reduced high-toast usage, and the crushing totalitarianism of new oak as it stomped all over Grenache-based wines in Châteauneuf, Mourvèdre in Bandol, Nebbiolo in Piedmont or Chardonnay in Chablis is now rare.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that wood has no role; we just need to conceive that role differently. ‘Noble oxidation’ may in fact be the most important contribution any container can make to a developing, ripening wine. Wooden vessels – older, bigger, quieter – remain irreplaceable.

Written by Andrew Jefford

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