Guide to winetasting – part 4

Published by Sally on July 1, 2010

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

Oak is vital to support, enliven and fulfil the potential of some of the best quality white wines on the planet. 

Using oak to ferment and mature white wine is a much more complex matter than imparting chewy, obvious oaky flavours. It is only new oak that imparts the characteristic toasted, nutty, vanilla, sometimes aromatic tarry and charcoal notes to a wine. These overt flavours fade as a barrel is used over subsequent vintages, and after a few years, none of these notes appear in the wine.  The smaller the barrel, the bigger the oak influence, all to do with the ratio of wood to wine. French oak and American oak have different flavours, and all the wines here have been made using French oak.

Wines reviewed below

Wines reviewed below

But oak doesn’t just provide flavour.  New and older oak enable an air exchange through the barrel, while the wine is maturing. The effect of this controlled air exchange is to soften the edges of a wine, makes it feel a little creamier on the tongue, a little rounder, maybe smoother, in texture. It changes the perception of dimension and shape in the mouth, think spheres rather than cubes, for example.

Good quality oak barrels are expensive, several hundred pounds sterling for one 225-litre barrel (300 bottles), so wine aged in high quality new oak is going to be more expensive than average. Cheaper options can be used – the staves that go to make up a barrel can be put loose into a stainless steel tank, as can ‘chips’ off cut during barrel making, but using barrels is generally regarded as the best option.

So using new oak is about flavour and texture, using older oak us about texture.  And it doesn’t end there. Certain grape varieties really don’t suit any sort of overt oak influence, notably riesling.  Some might argue sauvignon blanc too, but Bordeaux has long made great white blends from sauvignon blanc and semillon, especially in the Graves region, and there are one or two specialist cuvées of Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé in the Loire.

Oak affinity all starts with chardonnay, and therefore Burgundy. Apart from some top Chablis, all the best white Burgundies are brought up in oak barrel. Chablis is where there is some sort of dividing line, with some producers favouring the steely, sometimes austere, white floral, mealy, yeasty-lees style of Chablis, and others preferring, often on premier and grand cru wines, maturation in barrel, creating a creamier, richer, fatter-textured, long-lived wine.

South of Burgundy, the southern Rhône, as well as Languedoc and Roussillon, are rich with white varieties that do well with oak.  They tend to have modest acidity, richer, fatter flavours to which a bit of oak influence can add some additional structure and note of complexity. The likes of viognier (especially in Northern Rhône’s Condrieu), plus marsanne and roussanne, often blended with less fashionable Mediterranean whites such as grenache blanc. Spiciness and dry honeyed notes can be found amid tropical fruits.

From the Mediterranean warmth to the maritime Atlantic, where the best Bordeaux whites are barrel aged.  Sauvignon blanc is blended with semillon, which, with its modest acidity and toasty tendencies, also has a positive affinity with oak.

A issue to address, using these examples, is when oak, even new, is used really well, how much of it can you really taste? Or does it become such a seamless and wholesome part of the wine that its individual taste is integrated into the whole palate experience, including fruitful aromas and flavours, structure and shape?

Vincent Girardin, Bourgogne blanc, Cuvée St Vincent 2007
£13.99  Laithwaites
Screwcap, 13%
A ‘basic’ Burgundy, so 100% chardonnay, with no new oak, but four fifths aged in 500-litre, 2-3 year old oak barrels, for 10 months. The other fifth was aged in stainless steel. Sweet wood-smoke and roasted nut aromas plunge from the glass. White flowers emerge on the palate along with soft-baked lemons in an upliftingly fresh style. This has the smooth ground-nutty texture and flavour so typical of white Burgundy.  The oak influence is gently aromatic, then textural, and the finish is lemon-fresh, which cleanses the palate for another sip.

Olivier Leflaive, Puligny-Montrachet Les Meix 2007
£28.99 Corney and Barrow 
Cork, 14%
A ‘posh’ Burgundy, from a vineyard owned by Olivier Leflaive. The posher appellation with higher quality fruit allows more oak to fully express the wine. It’s not a premier cru, though it is right next door to Premier Cru Les Pucelles. All the wine was fermented in oak, a quarter of which was new, and matured for 9 months. This has all the classic hallmarks of high quality Burgundian chardonnay, nothing to be called overtly oaky at all, just a gentle palate packed with ginger and allspice, meal and hazelnut flavour and intensity, wrapped in elegant concentration and with a very long finish.

Domaine Saint-Amant, La Tabardonne 2007 Côtes du Rhône Villages Blanc, Rhône
£11.99 Waitrose Wine Direct 
Cork, 13.5%
Made from 90% viognier with the remainder from roussanne, and made in French oak barrels averaging 2 years’ age, and matured in them for 12 months. The only flavour nod to oak is a gentle vanilla spice which melds completely with fruit perfumes of apricot, honeyed melon and sweet spice. The palate reflects the nose with the concentrated fruit aromatising and filling the mouth with a sweet volume of fruit. Nicely balanced with a rich core.

Château Doisy-Daëne Sec 2008 Bordeaux
£17.49 Waitrose Wine Direct 
Cork, 12.5%
Denis Dubourdieu is Bordeaux’s white wine making genius, and this is made 100% from sauvignon blanc. All of the wine was fermented in oak barrels, but just 20% of them were new. And the wine matured in barrel for 8 months. Piquant pink grapefruit exudes from the glass and zests up the palate, so this sauvignon blanc retains its fruit core freshness. The oak adds some attractive creamy complexity, depth and roundness of texture and just the faintest memory of lemon toast.

Domaine le Soula, Vin de Pays des Côtes Catalanes blanc 2007  
£19.51 A&B Vintners 
Cork, 14%
This property is part-owned by Gérard Gauby of Domaine Gauby in Roussillon fame. It’s made from a blend of the grapes that were already planted in the vineyard when it was bought, so as it contains sauvignon blanc, it cannot be called a Roussillon appellation wine, and defaults to a vin de pays. The other grapes include grenache blanc, marsanne, roussanne and macabeu. Bigger oak features here too, so less overt new oak influence.  The wine matured in 500-litre casks, of which 30% were new, for 15 months.  It tastes fresh and aromatic, with white flowers, and a creamy lemon toast sub-text which envelops the palate in a luxurious flood of warmth. Fresh almonds and cobnuts meld with complexing citrus and aromatic spice notes in a flavour profile that’s long in the mouth and even longer on the finish.

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