R James Mullen takes a look at a knotty prob­lem faced by many vint­ners in the wine-age­ing process

Thailand Tatler - - CONTENTS -

Lo­cal wine buff R James Mullen asks “to oak or not to oak?” Given the price of a gen­uine French oak bar­rel, it is a ques­tion many wine­mak­ers will be ask­ing them­selves this har­vest sea­son

To oak or not to oak…” that is the ques­tion on the minds of many north­ern hemi­sphere wine­mak­ers at this time of year as they crush the 2018 har­vests. Prob­a­bly not as pro­found as Shake­speare’s Ham­let when pon­der­ing “To be or not to be…” but none­the­less sig­nif­i­cant in the eco­nom­ics of wine­mak­ing when con­sid­er­ing the ap­prox­i­mately 50,000 baht price of a 200-litre premium French oak bar­rel.

Wal­nut, red­wood, chest­nut and pine are among other tree species used to make bar­rels, which for many hun­dreds of years were the pri­mary con­tain­ers for stor­ing and ship­ping wines, olive oil and dry goods. For cen­turies wine made in Greece was stored in bar­rels made from na­tive pine, which im­parted a heavy resin flavour—hence the name retsina— and also acted as a preser­va­tive for tra­di­tional Greek wines.

In Cal­i­for­nia, gi­ant red­wood trees grow­ing in close prox­im­ity to Napa Val­ley’s wine re­gion be­came the wood of choice for fer­men­ta­tion tanks and age­ing bar­rels. Quite neu­tral in terms of flavour com­pounds, the wood was nearly im­per­vi­ous to any form of rot, mak­ing it ap­peal­ing not only for bar­rels but also for build­ing con­struc­tion. Sev­eral winer­ies— in­clud­ing famed Beaulieu—have kept large red­wood fer­men­ta­tion vats, al­though mostly for his­toric value.

Oak in its var­i­ous sub­species has be­come the wood of choice of wine­mak­ers around the world for age­ing their wines to per­fec­tion. Tan­nins and pig­ments in oak tend to moder­ate harsh com­po­nents of just-fer­mented wine, re­sult­ing in smoother, more in­te­grated flavours. Mod­ern sci­ence al­lows anal­y­sis of spe­cific com­pounds in each type of oak and its likely ef­fect on acids and sug­ars in a wine.

Wine­mak­ers then de­ter­mine their oak pref­er­ence and the length of time their wine should re­main in the bar­rel. Con­sid­er­ing the afore­men­tioned cost of a French oak bar­rel from the forests of say Li­mousin or Nev­ers where the tree it­self takes 75 to 100 years to reach the ma­tu­rity re­quired for fine bar­rels, it’s small won­der that a bot­tle of Chateau Mou­tonRoth­schild starts at around US$700 exwin­ery—heaven knows how much in Thai­land.

For­tu­nately for more mod­estly po­si­tioned wine lovers creative wine­mak­ers can achieve at least some oak ben­e­fits for far less money by us­ing oak chips or oak staves dur­ing fer­men­ta­tion and age­ing rather than oak bar­rels. Be aware that 90+ per cent of the red wine you buy now uses at least some of th­ese more eco­nom­i­cal fin­ish­ing tech­niques. A fun com­par­i­son of the ef­fects of oak on wine is to buy a chardon­nay la­belled un-wooded or un­oaked and a bot­tle of reg­u­lar chardon­nay or a white bur­gundy. Oak comes at a price but the fin­ish is so nice—touch wood!

TRA­DI­TIONAL FLAVOURS Ex­pen­sive they may be but bar­rels made from var­i­ous types of wood—par­tic­u­larly oak— re­main the wine­maker’s choice for age­ing vin­tages

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