Fashions in wine come and go: the latest is a decrease in the use of 100 per cent new oak barrels for the production of fine wines. Twenty years ago, the trend was for all new oak, which meant that red wine often had a rather oaky flavor while white, especially Chardonnay or White Burgundy, took on a buttery, vanilla style.
Some cheaper wine producers even stirred oak chips into wine while it was fermenting, but that practice has been outlawed for the grander wines of Bordeaux. Château Giscours, an eminent Margaux, was caught adding oak chips to its lesser wines and was heavily fined, leading one regulatory official to quip, "In Bordeax we put wine into wood,
not wood into wine."
Stephen Browett, the chairman of Farr Vintners, the largest fine wine brokers in the world, believes there has been a dramatic swing away from the heavy use of oak. "The fashion is certainly away from over-oaked as well as high-alcohol wine. People are turning towards wines that are more classically structured, more mineral and focused. The main victims have been the big oaky, alcoholic wines from Australia and the so-called garagist wines from Bordeaux."
Jean-Guillaume Prats, the General Manager of Château Cos d'Estournel, one of the leading 'Super Second' Bordeaux, believes the consumer no longer wants "to feel or smell the oak, which was not the case in the eighties and nineties. Secondly, the wines today are more tannic and have more alcohol than 15 to 20 years ago, so they need longer aging, which requires much better quality oak.
"Finally, the extraordinary level of prosperity that Bordeaux has experienced in the past two decades has allowed the châteaux to invest in quality barrels, and the manufacturers and coopers have followed that trend. It is very likely that until now we have never experienced this level of quality with oak, including the drying and selecting of oaks and the coopers. We now use around 80 per cent new oak, whereas previously with tannic vintages like 1995 or 1996 we would use more than 90 per cent. But I must say that everyone at the top level in Bordeaux has reduced their amount of new oak."
New oak barrels cost several hundred pounds each so it is also a big expense to use only new ones. Certain renowned châteaux in France manage to sell off their old barrels to lesser producers, who still gain from the luster of using a famous name barrel in their vineyard.
The grandest estate of all, Burgundy's Domaine Romanée Conti, has always used virtually 100 per cent new oak. Aubert de Villaine, the co-owner and Director of the Domaine, takes enormous care to only use finely-grained oak, which their barrel maker personally selects. The oak is then aged for a further four years in the open to weather. Considering that a barrel of their wine could be worth upwards of hundreds of thousands of pounds, it is understandable that they take infinite care in the selection process. Speaking at the recent London tasting of their superlative 2009 vintage, Mr Villaine said, "We have experimented quite a lot, but when you have such strong yields as we have in our vineyards, it is better to use around 95 per cent new oak, except for our recently released wine from Corton, which is better with 50 per cent new oak. For our wines it brings a final touch, which doesn't actually show on the palate. New oak breathes better, which is good for the wine as well and it is better for the tannins. For me, it is like putting someone into a bed with fresh sheets."
Bruce Palling is food columnist for the Wall Street Journal.
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