Guide to winetasting – part 6

Published by Sally on September 7, 2010

A version of this article first appeared in France magazine, June 2010.

Oak can be an emotive issue, and when it’s new it’s definitely a flavour contributor.  But some of the best white wines on the planet are made without using new oak. 

The obvious interpretation of ‘unoaked’ white wines is those fermented and matured in stainless steel, or some other inert tank that imparts no flavour of its own to the wine.  

A stainless steel fermentation / maturation can help retain the edgy freshness and primary fruit pungency that is so typical, for example, of many New World sauvignon blancs, such as those from Marlborough in New Zealand.  Stainless steel is thus excellent for whites with perky acidity which have been made to drink young, usually before the next vintage has been made.

Wines reviewed below

Wines reviewed below

But some ‘unoaked’ whites may be made using big, old oak casks, up to tens of thousands of litres in capacity, which can be used for many decades. Importantly, they impart not one iota of oak flavour.  Such wines are still classed as ‘un-oaked’.

These big, old oak casks, often with the flat ends decoratively carved, which investment illustrates the likely longevity of their use, do offer something different from a stainless steel upbringing. They offer a slight air exchange, which stainless steel generally does not.  This effect, especially on top quality whites, traditionally from Alsace, as well as Germany and Austria, effectively rounds out the edges of the wine, mellowing the texture, allowing it to soften into, and enhance, its own fruit core. 

Additionally, unoaked whites are also commonly found at the entry level everywhere to keep costs down.  New oak adds flavour but it is expensive, and needs replacing regularly because the flavour wears out. So basic Rhône, Bordeaux, Burgundy etc., will be unoaked.

But across the price spectrum, France is littered with white wines uninfluenced by overt oak. Almost anything from the Loire Valley and Alsace will be made in inert containers, from Muscadet in the west, through the chenin blanc appellations all the way to sauvignon blanc territory in Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé.  Only the super-cuvées of some of the more iconic Sancerre producers will be experimenting with new oak barrels. They are an acquired taste, if only because general style expectations for Sancerre are for pristine fruit and gunflint.

The climate clearly has something to do with it.  In the cooler Loire, where full ripeness can be an issue, there is an imperative to preserve as much fruit character as possible. New oak can quickly overpower fragile fruit flavours.  It is no surprise that Chablis is the epitome of unoaked chardonnay, which one then meets again further south in the humbler (cheaper) Burgundy regions around Macon. And in its unoaked apparitions, chardonnay has to focus on the cleanliness of its lines because it has nothing to hide behind.

In the South of France, most production is red, but there is one delightful appellation on the breezy Mediterranean coast that produces fresh, apple-zesty styles from the increasingly trendy picpoul grape variety.  The appellation is Languedoc – Picpoul de Pinet.

Apart from Picpoul de Pinet, Alsace is the only region which markets its grape varieties on the label.  Indeed, the choice of grape varieties has a lot to do with avoiding new oak influence.  Grape varieties where aroma and purity of fruit flavour are the raison d’etre perform best in inert containers which accentuate and enhance those aromatic and semi-aromatic qualities.  Riesling really has no affinity with oak.  Sauvignon blanc arguably too, though when blended with semillon in the classic whites of Bordeaux, it takes on whole different dimensions (and semillon has a great affinity for oak). Grapey muscat, rose-petal gewürztraminer, piquant pinot gris, these are the staples of Alsace, and inert containers.

It’s not just about pure grape variety expression either. Weight, or gras, and layers of complexity can be introduced by working with the lees, the dead yeast cells that are left after the end of fermentation. Keeping the freshly fermented wine on lees, stirring them from time to time, adds creaminess to the texture and helps to fill out the body of a white wine. Though this technique is not unique to ‘unoaked’ whites, it’s used on oaked whites too.

Domaines Schlumberger Pinot Gris Kitterlé 2006, Alsace Grand Cru
£25.99 Wadebridge Wines  
Cork, 13%
Schlumberger own three-quarters of the Kitterlé grand cru site. This wine was made in oak casks that are over 100 years old, varying in size from 80 to 170,000 litres. After fermentation it went into stainless steel for eight months maturation on its lees to add a spicy, creamy intensity.  Alsatien pinot gris often has some residual sweetness, and this is no exception. Here it adds rich, honeyed layers to the full-bodied tropical fruit and spicy firestone flavours. The wine is perfumed, the flavours intense, the finish long.  Think body, weight, medium-sweet lushness. Think stunning aperitif and soups. It’s not sweet enough for dessert. The producer has also promised some indication of a dry-to-sweet level on labels this year.

Domaine Vigneau-Chevreau, Vouvray Sec Cuvée Silex 2009, Loire Valley   
£11.95 Noel Young Wines 
Cork, 13%
By definition Vouvray is made from chenin blanc grapes. And with its typical racy apple acidity, this one is made in a perceptively dry, refreshing style. It has pristinely clean sweet-apple fruit, quite full-textured with a dry-honeyed concentration, with sweet melon and quince conserve notes coming through before the ripe fleshy finish. It’s fresh and intense, it’s precise and focused. This is a wine to cool your palate and make it sing.  You won’t know it, but it has been fermented-only (not matured) in barrique – but those barriques are up to 30 years old, so no flavour, and they allow the fermentation to proceed more slowly and build character in the wine. The wine is organic to boot.

Domaine Gilles Berlioz, Chignin, 2008, Vin de Savoie  
£9.95 Wine Society  
Cork, 11.5% 
The Alpine Savoie region, on the border with Switzerland in eastern France is a pretty specialised wine-making area.  Jacquère, the grape variety from which this wine is made, is the mostly widely planted in the area.  It tastes tart and appley with an attractive steeliness through its core.  The flavours are of white flowers, pear and green apple, in a somewhat restrained yet zesty style, with a good fresh intensity and balance. At 11.5% this packs a flavour punch without breaking the alcohol bank. Ideal for those long lost days of summer (hopefully not lost this year). This is my first tasting of the jacquère grape variety. Nice.

Jean Pierre Auvigue, Solutré, Rock, 2008, Mâcon Solutré, Burgundy 
£9.99 Waitrose
Cork, 12.5%
The Auvigue family have been growing grapes and making wine in vineyards around the famous rock of Solutré for generations.  Jean-Pierre and Michel Auvigue currently make wines in Pouilly-Fuissé, St Véran and Mâcon. This Mâcon is tight and linear, with white nut and oatmeal notes refined by a citric steeliness and great intensity of fruit, which opens out in the mouth.  It is restrained, yet it has full-flavoured flower and stone fruit intensity. It has had a stainless steel fermentation and maturation, being bottled in the spring following the harvest to preserve the steely edge of the fruit focus.

Brumont Gros Manseng 2009
£8.99 Corks of Cotham  
Cork, 12.5%
Gros manseng more normally accompanies petit manseng in the sweet wines of Jurançon, but this is a great expression of the grape in a dry style, focusing on the aromatic purity and bright fruit flavours.  It’s intended to be drunk in the first fresh flush of its youth. White peach, with simple, pure juicy tropical fruit intensity along the whole length of the palate, alongside reminiscences of allspice and juniper berries.  It’s delightfully uncomplicated with all the focus on the joy of the juice.

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