Is it the wood that makes it good?

There’s nothing more depressing than being presented with a winemaker’s ‘top cuvée’, usually their biggest investment from their vineyards’ best grapes, only to find yourself breathing in a glassful of oak-saturated unpleasantness. While you can just about detect some decent, well extracted fruit in the background, it’s all but been drowned out in a wave of tarry new oak.

The use of wood in wine maturation can be a wonderful thing, but it can also be a disaster. It seems in recent years as though the influence of wood in some wineries has gotten a little out of hand, so instead of it adding a warm edge to soften and harmonise a wine, it turns it into a tarry, pungent stew that makes you think more of French polishing than fermented grape juice. And this is no good for anyone.

Oak wine barrels at the Robert Mondavi vineyard in Califoria, quietly working their magic (or mayhem) on their vinous contents. Pic: Sanjay Acharya

Certainly, the influence of oak barrels in wine is nothing new. Being watertight and relatively malleable, oak has been used for centuries to store wine. Over the years, as winemaking (and wine drinking) became more sophisticated, people realised that keeping wine for longish periods in oak actually changed it – often for the better. The flavour of oak has a natural affinity with wine, bestowing on it complex compounds which enhance and unify the wine’s character. Oak’s natural properties even have a purifying effect, helping to gently clarify and stabilise a wine, while deepening its colour and softening its texture.

The problem with using oak to influence wine is that it’s quite a complex process, and an increasingly expensive one. In their Natural Wine Manifesto, le Cave de Pyrene state that ‘oak is the servant of wine, not its master’. A worthy philosophy of course, but the problem lies in mastering the oak itself so that it doesn’t dominate the wine.

There are many variables for the winemaker to consider, all of which affect the character of the finished wine. Size and age of the oak barrels is of paramount importance (the older the barrels, the less influence they have); how long the wine is kept in the barrel is vital; how heavily the barrel is ‘toasted’ (barrels are charred with fire to brown the inside and lessen or increase the flavour the oak imparts); and how long the wood has been seasoned (left to dry) before it was made into barrels, all determine what influence the wood will have on the wine, and all need to be rigorously controlled.

A new oak barrel being toasted before finishing

A new oak barrel being toasted

While there are many different types of oak available, the most popular today are those from France and America. Oak from central Europe is increasingly popular –particularly in Italy – due to its quality and price. American oak (Quercus alba) is a fast growing and wide grained white oak that tends to impart appealingly sweet vanilla and coconut flavours into a wine due to its intensity of aromatic compounds (as much from the oak itself as the difference in preparation of the wood for barrel making in America). Tight-grained and slow-growing French oak (Quercus petrae), on the other hand, tends to impart less of a pronounced ‘flavour’ than American oak, but also far more natural tannins and other complex compounds like methyl-octalactone, phenols and volatile aldehydes, all of which effect the wine’s character as it comes into contact with the barrel.

Perhaps the easiest way to understand the influence of the two types of wood is a simple taste/aroma test. Open a bottle of youngish Bordeaux and a Rioja crianza and compare the wines. Obviously they are two very different wines made of different terroirs, grapes and winemaking practices, but in general terms, Bordeaux wines are aged in French oak, and Rioja in American (or a mixture of the two). While it’s not the most scientific test, chances are you will detect a far more ‘classic’ oak influence in the Bordeaux, with notes reminiscent of cigar boxes and pencil shavings. With a very modern Rioja, the American oak is often fairly dominant and you’ll find those sweet vanilla and toasted coconut notes in abundance.

I guess the thing with oak, ultimately, is that a little goes a long way. However, if winemakers are to master the subtleties of oak’s influence, they need to experiment. Just as long as we consumers aren’t their guinea pigs. Complaints about heavy-handed oak treatment are something I hear a lot. So how do you feel about it? Do you enjoy the waft of raw toasty oak when you put your nose into a glass of wine, or do you prefer any oaky component to be just another element to the wine’s profile, something your nose and taste buds needs to seek out rather than be bombarded with? I know where I stand, I just hope I’m not in the minority. Altogether now: ‘wine before wood!’

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Champagne: it’s all down to character

Sometimes, this is all it's good for…

I’ve got a problem with champagne (and it’s not just that I can’t afford to drink it every day – well, actually it is, but that’s another post…). Let me explain: I’m a big fan of terroir, that elusive French term that encompasses climate, soil type, elevation, aspect, and lots more, and champagne eschews terroir for something much more industrial. What I personally love about wine is the beautiful confluence of a vigneron matching his piece of land to a specific grape and using all his skill, dedication, instinct and know-how to get the best out of both and ensure wines of wonderful character are created.

But champagne doesn’t operate like this. All those big houses (or brands, as we call them) that you see lined up on the shelves, your Moëts, Jouëts, Rogers, Roederers, Clicquots, et al, the ones we’re all so familiar with, don’t make their wine this way. Instead, they produce a consistent product by blending grapes of varying quality from all over the Champagne region, bought in from myriad different growers, from different harvests and years, to create a blend (or cuvée) that’s indistinguishable from the previous year’s, or the one in ten years’ time. This champagne isn’t made in the vineyard, it’s constructed methodically in the winery, with an almost scientific approach that’s not interested in grape attribute or vineyard characteristic, but simply in recreating a ‘standard’, an end-product that is identifiable, that sits within a larger brand and forms part of a ‘lifestyle choice’ for the consumer standing at the shelf trying to make a selection.

Vineyards in Epernay, Champagne. Where the magic happens (or not).

And what’s wrong with that? Well, for me, a great deal. As far as I’m concerned, that’s pretty much how McDonald’s approach making a Big Mac. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE champagne, but over the years I’ve come to realise that it could (and can be) so much more interesting. It’s a process, and every individual element of that process is stripped of its own character to ensure that the end product is always the same. And that’s not what I want when I pour a glass of wine. I want to taste the earth the grapes were grown on, I want to feel the sun, get a sense of the area, connect with the winemaker’s toil in the vineyard that year. Call me a romantic, call me a idealist, call me a massive idiothole if you like, but that’s what I want.

A Big Mac, yesterday.

But fortunately, it doesn’t have to be like this. There IS an alternative. Away from the mighty champagne houses, the little guy is fighting back. Known as ‘grower champagnes’, these champagne winemakers are the opposite of the big houses: small domaines who grow their own grapes and make them into their own champagne. These are sparkling wines a million miles away from the big houses’ consistent cuvées: rich, characterful wines made in often minute quantities, but bursting with distinctive charm, and susceptible to change year on year.

These types of champagnes are much more popular in France, where savvy consumers know to look beyond mighty marketing budgets and get a far more interesting return for their expense. Granted, not all RM champagne (RM means Récoltant-Manipulant, as opposed to NM – Négociant-Manipulants – such as the majority of the big houses are, who buy in grapes and make their wines from these) are good, some can be distinctly iffy, but when they are good, boy do they deliver some characterful and terroir-focused wine. Here are three particularly noteworthy examples:

Probably one of the most well-known RM champagnes is Pierre Gimmonet, a family-owned Epernay estate with prestigious vineyards on the famed Côtes des Blancs. Working only with Chardonnay grapes, some from vines up to 80 years old, the domaine produces a range of exceptional wines, from its entry-level non-vintage Cuis Premier Cru to its Gastronome and Oenophile vintage cuvées and its top-end wines. What separates Pierre Gimmonet from the big houses, for me, is both their humble price (these are champagnes that make you feel like the expense and the incredible contents of the bottle actually match) and the great class and refinement of the wine. Characterised, across the range, by a soft and silky opulence that is (or at least, should be) the very essence of this ‘luxury wine’, they are an absolute joy to drink and experience, time and time again. And it’s probably why the wines are so hard to get hold of!

The secret's in the label… Look for the RM code to tell you it's grower champagne

Another particular personal favourite is Bénédicte Jonchère, available in the UK through The Perfect Cellar, who, rather impressively, have managed to bottle their own exclusive house champagne from this estate called Brisson-Jonchere. Based in Bar-sur-Aube, in the Côtes des Bar area of the Champagne region, Bénédicte Jonchère is a small, family-owned estate, but one highly focused on quality and expressing the individual character of their terroir. The Grande Reserve, a classic blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes, shows a wonderful aromatic intensity and incredible balance between fruit and yeasty depth. Their Grand Reserve Rosé has a beautifully fine mousse and is not overly sweet, as some rosé champagnes can be. The red fruit flavours balance perfectly with the richness of the toasty, yeasty notes. An absolutely perfect Valentine’s Day treat.

Bénédicte Jonchère RM champagne

Lastly, and sadly a champagne I haven’t seen over here for some time now, is the lovely Ruelle Pertois, another small RM champagne house, this time based in Moussy. These wines really hark back to a bygone era, before the advent of the modern giant houses, when things in Champagne were, presumably, much simpler and a great deal more humble. Ruelle Pertois are a family affair and produce their wines with great care and peerless commitment to quality and tradition. Elegance and freshness seem to be the key to these champagnes, from the beautiful, Pinot Meunier-heavy non-vintage cuvée, to the wonderfully complex Blanc de Blanc vintage, a wine simply bursting with richness but also an incredible delicacy. Their Rosé, made from high quantities of Pinot Noir, is pure opulence and celebration. I really miss these wines.

Hey sweetie!

Ok, I admit it, I’ve got a seriously sweet tooth, and nothing tickles my fancy at the end of a meal quite like a rich, absorbing and deliciously sticky dessert wine. Whether you pair yours with pudding, balance it with a powerful blue cheese or just zone in on the complex golden loveliness in the glass (as I tend to), if you’re a fan of dessert wines, you’re all right by me.

Let’s take a look at some of the different types of sweeties and count the ways we love them…

Top of the pile are of course the ultra complex botrytized sweet wines, where rare and highly temperamental climactic conditions bring about ‘noble rot’ – actually an air-born fungus called Botrytis cinerea – on ripe, unpicked grapes. I tip my hat to whomever it was who first decided to make wine from these wrinkled, mouldy grapes, because frankly, they look revolting. What happens is that the air-born fungus (which tends to drift in on early-morning mists) attacks the ripe grapes and withers them on the vine, shrinking and drying them by thinning the skins, encouraging water to evaporate and concentrating the sugars and acids. It leaves them looking really funky (see pic), but also holding the potential to make some of the most rewarding of all wines.

Riesling grapes affected by noble rot

The ‘great’ botrytized wines are of course the luscious and world famous sweet wines of Sauternes and Tokaji, two wines that have been held in reverence the world over for hundreds of years. Characterised by great complexity and depth, good examples of these wines show powerful sweetness and acidity, all exquisitely balanced with an endless variety of citrus, apricot, honey, mineral (especially in Tokaji, where the volcanic soil adds an extra layer of loveliness), vegetal and, well, just heavenly tastes and aromas. They may be really hard work to make (hence the expense), but let’s be thankful for those winemakers who can, and do, take the trouble to.

Vineyards and cellars in Tokaj-Hegyalja, Hungary

Other botrytized wines of note include Monbazillac from nearby Bergerac in Southwest France, which is made in similar ways to Sauternes from botrytized Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc grapes, but with a higher proportion of Muscadelle grapes giving it a more ‘grapey’ character. From the Loire valley we have the extraordinarily long-lived Coteaux du Layon wines, made from Chenin-Blanc grapes, while over in Germany, the famously rare botrytized Rieslings of Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese (no, I can’t pronounce them either) are a mouth-watering treat – if you can find any. Nearby you find the Sélection de Grains Nobles of Alsace (which basically translates as ‘the selection of noble berries’, hinting at the time-consuming work involved in hand-harvesting rotten grapes) and in Italy, the opulent and again rare muffato wines from Orvieto in Umbria.

However, if you’re a confirmed sweetie lover, you’ll know we don’t need all that ‘noble rot’ rot to have a good time. There are plenty of other really rather wonderful dessert wines out there (and some pretty bad ones, be warned!) that, while they may not have the depth and complexity of their botrytized cousins, can offer up myriad honeyed charms at a fraction of the cost.

One particularly noteworthy and oft-overlooked sweetie that I return to again and again is the lovely Maury from France’s Rousillon region. Both red and white wines are made here – in the gently fortified vins doux naturels style such as Riversaltes (where the sweet muscat grape reigns supreme) and Banyuls – although it’s the reds you mostly see. Made predominantly from Grenache Noir grapes and often aged in oak before bottling, these sumptuous reds are perfect from the fridge, offering wonderful earthy complexity behind the luscious sweet fruit. Pair one with a gooey chocolatey pudding and you’ll be grinning from ear to ear. Guaranteed.

Not far from Roussillon, in the foothills of the Pyrenees, another lovely sweetie can be found. Jurançon is a commune in Southwest France that produces both dry and sweet wines from the local Manseng and Courbu grape varieties. The dry wines are very pleasant, but the sweet ones are just wonderful, full of luscious honeyed opulence and, in the best examples, delicious tropical fruit nuances with a splash of minerally freshness. A cold glass of Jurançon makes a cracking 5 o’clock wine, especially if you missed a little afternoon treat and fancy something sweet before the day ends.

Manseng grapes ripening in the sun in Jurançon

But probably one of the sweetest and most joyful dessert wines is Moscato d’Asti, from Piedmont in the northwest of Italy. With its fine moussey bubbles, easy-going low alcohol and lovely mouth-watering orange blossom flavours, a good Moscato can be a thing of delicious beauty and unbridled pleasure. It tends to come into its own on summer days/nights, as it makes such a hedonistic partner for fresh fruits (or fruit tarts, meringues, cakes, etc). Of course, it can just be a blissfully easy and cheeky little dessert on its own too. I doubt you’d hear any complaints.

Other sweet wines of note include the wonderful ‘straw’ wines: those made from grapes that are left to raisin in the sun (usually on straw mats) after picking. Although the Italians have really perfected this style of winemaking, the king of them all is probably Pedro Ximénez from Jerez in Spain. Known as vinos de pasas, the Spanish make tremendous dessert wines in this style, with the rich, dark and luxurious PX being the most intense. In fact, wines made solely from this grape in the sherry solera style are often too much for even me to sip cordially, but pour some over ice cream and I’m in sweet treat heaven. In Spain’s La Mancha region, you also find wonderful sweeties made from raisined Moscatel Morisco grapes, the best examples of these having a real botrytis-like zestiness and complexity.

Lastly, there are the super concentrated (and über-expensive) ice wines, or Eiswein’s, from cold places like Canada and Germany, where the grapes are harvested while still frozen on the vine so all the water is crystallised and only the grapes’ sugary core is extracted. And while I don’t wish to overlook the New World completely (for there are some very interesting sweet wines being produced there too – for instance, the ever-popular Rutherglen Muscat from Australia, a delightfully intense, raisiny number that always goes down well with a mince pie (or three) – that feels like another post altogether.

This way happiness lies… Vanilla ice cream

Yes, I’m sure I’ve overlooked plenty, but my wine journey isn’t over yet and I know I’ve many more pleasures to discover. The point is, I’m proud of my sweet afflictions and I urge you to indulge yours if you feel the same. There are a lot of wines out there (and wine people) getting bogged down in the seriousness of studious appreciation. Sometimes you’ve just got to let indulgence take you for a ride. So sit back, grab a sweetie and give those tired taste buds a treat. Cheers!