Say ‘oaky’ to most wine drinkers and they’ll think of big reds and creamy, rich whites. Even in Champagne, though, oak can sometimes go a long way towards explaining why a wine tastes like it does. Oak is nothing new in Champagne; before the orthodoxy of clean, inert and practical stainless steel fermentation tanks took hold in the middle of the twentieth century, barrels were one of the few devices available to put your wine in. Producers such as Krug and Bollinger that persisted with oak use through the 1970s and 1980s were seen as slightly old-fashioned at the time but, today, barrels are firmly back in the groove.
Using barrels is not always about big, oaky flavours, though. So how and why is oak used, and what can you taste?
A dash of seasoning
Introducing a tiny percentage – perhaps around 5% – of barrel-aged wine can add an almost imperceptible dash of spicy vanilla richness into a wine without it seeming remotely oaky. At these levels, even fairly new oak can be used subtly, like a loud voice in a large crowd. The most famous example of this is Taittinger’s Prestige Blanc de Blancs Comtes de Champagne, although the technique is now used widely. It’s a bit like salt in cooking; if you notice it, there’s probably more than there should be.
There are even a few unusual tricks that some producers use, such as oak-ageing the liqueur d’expedition (the mixture of wine and sugar, or dosage, that gets added after disgorgement to most champagnes).
This is where oak’s natural porosity comes into its own. The profile and intensity of oak flavour changes depending on the source of the oak, how many wines it has contained before, and how much of it is in contact with the wine (larger vessels offer up lower oak to wine ratios, so have less impact on flavour). Most winemakers in Champagne, though, don’t talk about oak flavour. They talk about micro-oxidation. Whether you’re looking at foudres big enough for a family of four to sit and have a picnic inside, or small 225 litre barrels, oak allows a trickle of oxygen to interact with the wine inside. The tighter the grain and the larger the barrel, the lower the oxygen impact will be per litre of wine.
The effect? Winemakers that use oak in this way will tell you that their wines are more expressive, complex and open even after relatively short times on lees. By contrast, Champagnes made entirely in stainless steel can come across as very straightforward when youthful, relying instead on lengthier time on lees to build texture and complexity. There’s no right or wrong way, and many producers aim to find a balance between steel and oak (and even concrete or enamel) in just the same way as they might between Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
There’s no denying it, oak flavours can be delicious. There’s something about the toast, the vanilla, the spices, the sheer range of sweet, woody flavours from jasmine to coconut and maple that can sit in the mix so enticingly with Chardonnay and the Pinots as they age in the bottle and after release. In truth, even those producers saying they’re not using their small barrels for oak flavour are probably bending the message a little; it might take five vintages or more for a barrel to cease leeching flavour compounds into a wine.
The old-school line that oak flavour doesn’t fit with the Champagne style is now in full retirement. Producers such as Henri Giraud make a feature of their oak usage, rather than trying to hide it, whereas houses that had previously moved to stainless steel such as Billecart-Salmon and Louis Roederer are bringing back the oak, both large and small.
It’s still rare, though, to find lots of new oak in Champagne in the same way you might do in still Chardonnay and Pinot Noir styles (in fact, most Champenois buy their barrels second-hand from Burgundy). When there are new barrels in the cellar of a producer not wanting a noticeable oaky profile, they might be filled with harder pressings to strip out the most prominent oaky flavours before being put to use, or sometimes used as a ‘spice’ in a larger blend until their oak impact is less obvious.
As the climate warms, still wine is making something of a resurgence in Champagne at present, and this is one area where oak is almost always part of the picture.
Without bubbles, and with the extra body and richness that comes from grapes ripened for still wine production, winemakers have a little more licence with their barrels. The order of the day is much longer ageing in barrel than for most sparkling base wines, usually going far beyond the subsequent harvest, whilst base wines will be bottled in the spring or early summer following.
Author of this article, Tom Hewson, writes about Champagne and Sparkling Wine for Tim Atkin MW and at https://sixatmospheres.
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