Super cooper: Barrel-aged wines

Margaret Rand

03 August 2016

With producers looking for ever-more bespoke vessels for their wines, barrel ageing is getting seriously complicated. Margaret Rand sorts out the toast from the Tronçais

Once upon a time there were oak barrels. They were regarded as God, and winemakers made regular sacrifices to them, or for them, to the tune of several hundred pounds per barrel.

But winemakers swiftly realised there was not just one god but a whole pantheon. There was Tronçais, Allier, Nevers and a few others, including America. Suppliants tried Hungary and Moldova, but their prayers seldom seemed to be answered as efficiently as they were by Tronçais, Allier, Nevers and America.

For the faithful, barrels are couture. Buying off-the-peg is for agnostics only

If you wanted to know which gods a particular winemaker favoured you only had to look at the barrels in his cellar. They’d be labelled with the name of the god, together with the name of the intercessor: Seguin Moreau, Sylvain, Boutes, Taransaud. There were – and are – plenty of the latter.

In those far-off days, people who drank the wine wanted to taste the god. If wine tasted really, really vanilla-y they said, 'America!' If it didn’t, they said, 'France!' (They were less precise than perhaps they should have been, given the enormity of the sacrifice.) And then they got heartily sick of the whole thing. Now, if they taste obvious oak on a wine they say, 'OMG!' and push it away.

What’s remarkable is how quickly oak-revulsion set in. Consumers were ready for it; producers were ready for it. You can still find obvious oak flavours – Spain and California are clear culprits, but you’ll also find them in Germany, Italy and the south of France, and from producers who should know better. It’s just that now those wines seem anachronistic. It doesn’t mean that winemakers aren’t using oak; they certainly are – and new oak, too. The difference is that their understanding of the oak gods is now far greater and far more subtle than it used to be.

Oaken University
Who’s still looking for oak in their
wines? Three top sommeliers tell all

Igor Sotric, China Tang
'We serve Oriental cuisine
with lots of spices, and accompaniments such as soy sauce or vinegar, so most of the dishes suit aromatic wines such as Alsace or German Riesling. But most of our regulars don’t pay much attention to food matching, and tend to drink wines they like. Generally, we sell more unoaked wines, but it depends a lot on the nationality of the customer. Russians love rich, oaky American wines; the Chinese are crazy for Bordeaux (the usual order for Angelus is 'the one with the bell!')'

Ronan Sayburn MS, 67 Pall Mall
'Customers like good oak – oak that they don’t notice. It’s like seasoning: food shouldn’t be over-salted. People don’t want chips and staves or an obvious oak taste any more. Slightly younger people mind it less – if you’re relatively new to wine you like intense, heavy flavours, but as you get older you’re more likely to shy away from it. The days of big, oaky Chardonnays are gone; even in Burgundy they’re cutting back. A barrique costs €700-€900. For a kilo and a half
of grapes, which is what it takes to make a bottle, that’s
€2-€4. Overt oak is a very expensive flavour.'

Marc Piquet, The Greenhouse
'In good wines, oak has to provide the structure and be harmoniously integrated. I don’t think people, on the whole, want to taste oak, but sometimes they want a big wine that’s very smoky and spicy, and then we understand that they do actually like oak. I think it’s a generational pattern. Younger customers are more orientated to fragrant, fruit-driven wines, whereas older customers are more likely to want Bordeaux, Malbec or a rich Chardonnay – all of which are usually aged in new oak.'

Against the grain
What’s more the oak gods have changed their nature. From forests they became grains – open grain, tight grain, even tighter grain, super-tight grain. Next, they’ll be species of oak: latest research shows that sessile oak and pedunculate oak give different flavours to wine. Sessile gives sweetness without sugar; pedunculate gives bitterness. Most barrels currently contain both, but soon winemakers will be able to choose.

So why bother with oak at all, if consumer tastes have turned away from it? If you don’t want vanilla or coconut, why not just age your wines in stainless steel? But of course the flavour of the wine is entirely different. Steel suits some wines, but others benefit from the backbone and length, as well as the roundness and extra aromas that come with oak-ageing.

And, once you want oak to support your wine but not dominate it, you enter a whole new world of air-drying and toast, not to mention expense. You can discuss the micro-climate of where the staves are aged with the detail you might apply to the sunshine hours of a vineyard in Volnay. Toasting, and the interaction of toast with air-drying, is another topic well worthy of a PhD.

The amount of detail available has risen exponentially, and it’s the details that will decide whether this barrel or the one next to it are right for this grape, or that part of your vineyard. For the faithful, barrels are couture. Buying off-the-peg is for agnostics only.

Out of the woods
So: a quick catechism – of French oak only, because of space. Coopers buy trees in the forest, and they know the forests well. Different coopers specialise in different parts of different forests, and recognise promising trees for their straightness and their lack of nodes. Different soils and exposures mean different growth rates. Faster growth means a more open grain; slower growth, a tighter grain.

Tighter grains mean a slower evolution of the wine, and more aromas. If you want less aroma and more tannin, go for a more open grain. In Burgundy, you might order tightly grained oak for your more open, opulent wines, and a more open grain for your tighter wines.

First, though, the staves must be dried. The wind and the rain beat the astringency and the 'plankiness' from the wood, and friendly enzymes and moulds provide flavour precursors. Wood dried in Burgundy (continental climate but cool) will be different to the same wood dried in Bordeaux (maritime but warmer). French oak dried in Australia will be vastly different to both, with many more lactones and thus a stronger oak flavour. Even the way the staves are stacked has an effect.

The length of drying matters, too. After just 12 months, the oak still tastes pretty woody. After 18 months, it starts to become more subtle; and every six months gives more subtlety and a less obvious wood taste. Two years is about the minimum, but five years is getting more common as producers seek greater delicacy.

Once the drying is over and the staves are at the cooperage, the aroma precursors are either there or they’re not. The unpopular coconut flavours come from cis and trans lactones, which you get in raw oak. As lignin breaks down during air-drying it produces the more desirable vanillin and clove-scented eugenol.

Next comes the making of the barrel, and the toasting. The point of toast is that it helps the wood and the wine integrate. Low toast gives less integration, and is horribly revealing of any faults in the wood; it’s high risk. High toast means less oak flavour, more caramel and torrefaction, less finesse.

Guaiacol and 4-methylguaiacol, produced during toasting, are smoky scented; furfural and 5-methylfurfural give caramel, coffee and butterscotch notes. The temperature and the length of toasting control the strength of these flavours, but, inevitably, it’s not as simple as more toast equals more flavour. What many producers now seek is not the toasted-bread smell of a barrel with a standard toasting, but the fresh brioche of something much more sensitively done.

Make a toast
One cooper’s medium toast won’t be the same as another. A hot, short toast and a long, slow one may both end up with the ‘medium’ label, but will have different effects on the wine. A long, slow toast is traditional for Burgundian coopers, and goes further but more gently into the wood; while a Bordeaux toast is usually shorter and hotter.

How the flavours you want are delivered to the wine is mostly down to time. For the first six months in barrel the wine creeps into the toasted part of the wood and gains toasty aromas. After that it reaches the second layer, and gains cinnamon, nutmeg and eugenol flavours. Then it goes in still deeper and reaches lactones. So it’s really only long-oaked wines that get all three stages.

The days of big, oaky Chardonnays are gone; even in Burgundy they're cutting back

Ronan Sayburn MS

The house style of a cooper is extremely important. In Burgundy, Dominique Lafon likes Seguin Moreau and Chassin for powerful vineyards, and Damy for more delicate ones. In Bordeaux, Sociando-Mallet favours Taransaud for Cabernet Sauvignon, Seguin Moreau for Merlot, and Boutes for Cabernet Franc. Taransaud and Boutes, they say, emphasise the fruit, Seguin Moreau gives tighter, less evolved fruit. Or you could be like Christian Moueix and favour Remond and Taransaud for limestone soils, and Demptos and Seguin Moreau for clay.

The job of the cooper, nowadays, is not merely to be an intercessor with the oak gods but to ensure that the gods answer prayers in precisely the right way. The intercessors rule, and the gods have become obedient. It’s their best trick yet.

Photos: Yalumba


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