Remember when oak was merely something that a suitable barrel was made from, and the new barrels seemed somehow more suitable for the best wine? No, nor I – corruption set in a while back. The scents of new oak became associated with quality wine – and bam! oak became the prime legal flavourant in winemaking.
If you have any lingering romantic doubts about this (it might be part of a naïve misapprehension about the naturalness of most winemaking) a flip through the latest issue of WineLand should set you straight, with its “focus on wood” – starting off with a photo of some flavourant sticks on the cover..
The lunacy of Tonellerie de Loire seems delightfully benign (felling the tree in accordance with the phase of the moon) compared with the commercial cynicism of the barrel-makers in general.
Nadalie, for example, “offers a very special toast called Noisette which is ideal for fruit-driven wines”. Nobile Base offers different oak chips, granules and staves which “will each contribute to various descriptors, generate mouthfeel, and contribute to aromatic complexity for a comparable aromatic profile to barrel ageing”. The “focal point” of Cape Cooperage is “an ever-evolving palette of oak aromas and flavours” – their Xt4 chips (just one example) “offer notes of brown sugar, coffee and roasted accents”.
If winelovers increasingly feel doubtful about the integrity of wine and wine loses that inestimable advantage in our argro-chemical, agro-industrial world, why be surprised? WineLand’s cover-page advertorialists Seguin Moreau is “proud to present a new set of tools of barrel inserts, oak blocks in infusion bags for tanks, various thicknesses of oak staves for tanks, and “NEW” – (I confess I don’t understand, but feel a bit sickened) “premixed boxes for wine, brandy and rum”. At least Seguin Moreau can apparently tell that there’s some difference between the three.
Oak as additive. As flavourant. It’s an important enough concept and reality for all these coopers and cynics to be advertising and advertorialising in the local industry-focused wine magazine. And we’ll be asked to applaud the results – not only in self-proclaimed coffee pinotage, and mocha merlot, and cappuccino cabernet – but in the grander wines too.
There are criticisms galore of “natural” winemaking (apparently it might even lead to dimishined expression of terroir!) – why do we hear from those same critics so little criticism of oak as an unnatural flavourant in wine?
The Swartland Independent Producers organisation, may all the gods bless them, impose on their members a limit of 25% new-wood barrels as a maturation vehicle. Probably they don’t even see the necessity of prohibiting wood chips, Seguin Moreau’s “oak blocks in infusion bags”, and the like. I’m sure they’re right. Their members are aiming to make wine, not flavoured wine-derivatives. I wish that more were.