Let’s talk about oak. Whenever I mention the dreaded “O” word to friends and family, there are inevitably comments from people who are adamant that they don’t like oaky wines.
Yet oak – when used skilfully – can be a wonderful gift to a winemaker. It can bring sweet spicy flavours like vanilla, cinnamon and cloves and it gives wine a chance to breathe as it ages, with oak barrels providing a porous enough environment for tiny amounts of oxygen to get into the wine and soften the tannins.
When folk tell me that they don’t like oak, it’s often the tannins in a wine that they are actually finding hard to handle. Grape tannins are found in the pips, stalks and skins of the fruit – while wood tannins are found in the oak barrels – and are the substances that make you suck in your cheeks when you taste a dry wine, much like a strong cup of tea.
While I think a dislike of tannins rather than oak could be the culprit in many cases, I accept that when things go wrong with oak, they can go really, really wrong. Think back to the oaky Australian Chardonnays of the eighties and nineties and you’ll remember wines that tasted more of wood than fruit, the very antithesis of today’s easy-going Pinot Grigios.
Other people’s dislike of oak can be more subtle. Some object to the smoky aromas that oak can give to a wine, while others just don’t like the vanilla or cinnamon flavours if they’re not well-integrated into the rest of the wine.
A recent tasting with Ralph and Lucy Weir showed what can be achieved with a little oak ageing. The Weirs launched Edinburgh-based De Vere Vintners back in July after spotting what they believe is a gap in the market for a merchant to supply hand-picked wines from Bordeaux.
“Oak can transform a wine into something else entirely,” enthused Ralph as we tried half-a-dozen wines that he imports direct from the vineyards. De Vere currently has 20 wines on its website, including four whites and a rose, each selected by Ralph and Lucy, who used to live in Bordeaux.
While there are several wines for special occasions, many of their bottles are approachable, everyday wines, often from Bordeaux’s outlying areas – such as Blaye, Bourg and Castillon – which are often noted for the better value that they can offer.
Chateau Haut-Canteloup, Sauvignon Blanc, 2014 (£7.75)
Sauvignon Blanc from Bordeaux tends to be more restrained than the rampant gooseberry dominated wines of New Zealand or the cat pee aromas of the Loire Valley. In this example from Blaye, to the north of the city of Bordeaux, the Sauvignon Blanc has been blended with 10 per cent of its cousin, Sauvignon Gris, and 5 per cent Muscadelle, which brings flora aromas to the bouquet. There’s a nice balance struck between the fresh, bright acidity and the fruit flavours of grapefruit, green apple and pear, along with the Sauvignon’s distinctive elderflower notes.
Chateau Haut-Canteloup Cuvee Prestige, 2012 (£8.95)
The red brother to the Sauvignon Blanc, this blend is formed from a very traditional Bordeaux combination of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Malbec. On the nose, there’s the delicious mix of blackcurrant and red fruits such as raspberry and red cherry, which are combined with sweeter vanilla and chocolate notes on the palate from the wine’s oak ageing. The oak ageing also gives smoke on the nose and almost a savoury note too. Don’t be put off by the unattractive label; there’s good wine in the bottle.
Chateau Roque le Mayne, 2012 (£10.95)
The deeper colour of the Chateau Roque le Mayne – which comes from Castillon, on the border of the famous Saint-Emilion area and which shares its Merlot-heavy blend – gives a clue to the darker fruit aromas of bramble, blackberry and blackcurrant on the nose, along with smoke, roast meat and liquorice. As you’d expected from Bordeaux, the wine is dry, with plenty of tannin, the substance that makes you suck in your cheeks, but which also helps the wine to match food. Tasty dark chocolate and vanilla flavours emerged on the palate after the wine had been decanted and allowed to breathe for a while.
Chateau Les Pierreres, 2012 (£12.25)
Returning to Blaye and the Chateau Les Pierreres was another wine that benefited from a bit of time in the glass to breathe. Soon, it was showing off its complex aromas, with coffee, wood smoke, roast meat and vanilla mingling with black plum, blackcurrant and sweeter spices of cinnamon and vanilla. An interesting blend of 90 per cent Merlot and 10 per cent Malbec delivers a wine that’s got the meaty tannins you want to accompany food but still plenty of fruity flavours.
Terre Amoureuse, Chateau Beynat, 2012 (£12.50)
Another interesting blend, this time from the Saint-Emilion area itself, with 60 per cent Cabernet Franc and 40 per cent Cabernet Sauvignon, foregoing the usual Saint-Emilion preference for Merlot. Cabernet Franc can sometimes become a bit weird when it dominates a blend, but this certified organic red has been very skilfully made; it’s approachable and fruit-forward, with plenty of raspberry, red cherry, blackcurrant and blackberry flavours. The tannins are well-integrated, making this an enjoyable glass, both with and without food.
Epicurea de Chateau Martinat, 2012 (£17.75)
Currently the most expensive wine on DeVere’s list and it’s easy to see why, with the soft and velvety feeling in the mouth setting the wine apart from others in the tasting and helping it to pip the Terre Amoureuse at the post as my pick of the bunch. For me, this was all about the dark fruits, with damsons and black cherries joined by some sweeter red cherry notes. When combined with the coffee and milk chocolate flavours, this produced a winning combination from the Cotes de Bourg area, where 80 per cent Merlot has been blended with 20 per cent Malbec.