Sunday, March 25, 2007

Arts of oak

Updated 25th March 11:50
I mentioned in the last but one post that we celebrated our daughter's success in getting her MRCP with a botttle of wine. But this was not just any bottle of wine ( to echo that seductive voice on the Sainsbury ad). This one came from the display rack in the wine store which has a lockable bar that clamps the premium wine in place, preventing a quick exit with one under the coat (not that I would ever dream of doing such a thing).

So what did I think of the '96 Margaux, given it's the most I have ever paid ?

Hugely underwhelmed is the answer, which is what I now say about the majority of clarets. And always for the same reason - oakiness predominating over grapiness.

Last night I did a bit of googling, but in unashamed charlatan fashion, seeking facts that would support my position. That meant ploughing through pages of stuff about how the French initially chose oak for their barrels, because that hard, generally close grained timber is ideal for allowing the wine to mature. And it is recognized that the wine acquires an oaky flavour in the process, which can be controlled to some extent, because new barrels add a lot of oakiness, old barrels very little, so that wine can be switched from old to new barrels, and even back again, to get the desired degree of oakiness. And it's all traditional, we are told; it's been going one for centuries blah blah blah.

But so far I haven't found what I've been looking for - the killer fact that would nail once and for all this intrusion of woodland into wine-making. Namely that the invasion of oak flavour was tolerated initially because the oak resins allowed the wine to be kept, and matured, for longer. There was a trade off, in other words. If you wanted the flavour of mature grape, then an accompaniment of resinous old oak was the price you paid.

Consider for one moment that British substitute for wine - namely the barley-based ales and beers. They have been "hopped" for centuries, and Kentish hops impart a distinctive flavour. But when I visited a brewery, there was not attempt to hide the original purpose of the hops. They were there, originally at any rate, as a preservative. That's because any solution of alcohol, exposed to air, turns to vinegar, due to the action of aerobic Acetobacter, whose spores are everywhere in the air. Having stumbled by accident on the antiseptic properties of hops, brewers no longer needed to rely on high alcohol content as a preservative, and could then use less barley, and produce beer more cheaply, and which had a longer cellar life.

The Greeks developed even more robust means of preserving certain wines - by tossing lumps of pine resin into the wine, to create retsina. But we all know one can develop a taste for the stuff, even if it does taste like turps.

Resins - now what are they ? They are substances that trees and plants produce to protect themselves against microrganisms like fungi and bacteria. Oak has resins. So you can guess where my thoughts are heading: storing wine in oaken casks did not just protect against leakage: it added a touch of what might crudely be called disinfectant, without which there would have been tremendous spoilage of wine if they had been stored for too long.

Over time , our palates have become accustomed to the natural preservatives used in beers and wines, and that includes the oaky flavour of a mature claret, to the extent that it's supposed to be a prized characteristic in its own right, and winemakers now go to great lengths to control or enhance that oakiness. See link

But if you have ever tasted a mature red wine that is still predominantly grapey, perhaps because it's been protected by its own tannins, or by its high level of alcohol, or by being kept in the right kind of old oak barrels, then, if you are like me, you will be irritated at paying an arm and a leg for a bottle of 'upmarket' claret that hits you with an oakey instead of grapey flavour.

One suspects that there's probably a supply-and-demand problem here ; grapey unadulterated wines are a dicier prospect, without all those additional oakey resins to keep them sterile.

Ipso facto, one tends to be offered oakey wines, even if, like me, you are somewhat dismissive of the genre, suspecting that one is the fall guy for a centuries old con that's as old as the trees ( well, mature oaks, anyway ). Never mind the flavour, just taste the additives!

I've asked my wine merchant to recommend clarets and other reds that are grapey, not oakey, but one suspects from his reaction that no one's asked him that before. ....

Maybe we need a wine equivalent of that German standard for beer, Reinheitsgebot, which specifies barley, hops, water and yeast, period. In other words, no additives, whether modern, or just there as a result of some "happy" accident of history.

But that would mean specifying an inert container, eg stainless steel, or glass, for storage and maturation. That's hardly designed to seduce palates, is it ? But at least it doesn't assault them.

email from Louise: 25th March 11:50

Did you decant the Rausan? It was a young wine for a Bordeaux and needs to be opened and decanted at least 6 hours before drinking. Despite popular belief, the younger the wine, the longer the need for opening and decanting. An old wine should only be opened at the last minute and if necessary, decanted (this is only to avoid the sludge, not to develop the flavours which will rapidly disappear in an old wine).You will not get a 'grapey' wine from Bordeaux - the wines from there are extremely tannic like the wines from the Languedoc. For a 'grapey' wine I would suggest a wine from the Loire Valley, such as a St. Nicholas or otherwise a young Bourgogne - you could go as far south as Mercurey for that, just about ...

A young wine, you say Louise ? 1996 ? I hardly think that's a young wine, even if it can stand years or even decades longer in the cellars.

There was no sediment. This and other wines from the chateau go through a fining procedure with egg whites, repeated racking etc.

The man in the shop recommended we put it into the decanter 30 minutes before serving.

I don't consider tannins to be at odds with a grapey flavour. Even fresh black grapes can have their sweet pulp given a slight bitter edge from the skins, which is, of course, where the tannins are concentrated. I see no reason in principle why a Bordeaux cannot be grapey/tannic, provided it is matured in old barrels, preferably ones that have been recycled, "second hand" if you like.

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