new article by Jolanta Smiciene 'Experts fight over oak'

Most of the world`s wine making regions have long ceased raising questions about the usage of oak for the fermentation of wine. Questions about the type of oak barrels and the age of them are not asked often as well.

However, here we should exclude such a special region as Champagne. For centuries winemakers in Champagne have been wrestling with a problem of how to make the best balanced wine due to complicated conditions of grape ripening and strictly regulated technologies. Today some Champagne winemakers look upon the usage of oak as a completely natural thing and a key to producing original and distinctive champagne; others, however, consider it a totally unacceptable technology.

Back to the beginning
It is interesting to note that the opinions of champagne experts differ a lot. “There will never be a greater winemaker in Champagne than Anselm Selosse,” Richard Juhlin (one of today’s greatest champagne authorities) said about the pioneer winemaker in Champagne region who uses only oak barrels for the fermentation of wine. “I am not a great admirer of oak wine from this maker,” says another expert Tom Stevenson. A newly risen champagne connoisseur Peter Liem does not support either of these opinions. During Decanter’s World Wine Award tasting Tony Jordan (an assessor for Decanter magazine) declared that he wanted to reject all brands of champagne where a touch of oak was felt.

Looking into the history of winemaking in this region one would see that up to the 20th century wine fermentation took place in oak barrels only. Later, due to the rise of price of raw material for the barrels and increased labour costs most winemakers changed oak barrels into huge metal tanks. It seems that oak supporters come back to where it was started. On the other hand, wood makes champagne more winey and increases its gastronomic value i.e. its capacity to match other dishes.
All over the world champagne is mostly valued for its elegance. It seems that the weight of champagne increased by the influence of the barrels might harm its tenderness and subtlety, however, during the last decade more and more winemakers in Champagne experiment with different types of barrels thus achieving complexity and retaining subtlety and finesse.

Who is strictly against oak?

“Most oak supporters say that the barrels help to create certain exclusivity for their champagne. In fact, using oak barrels makes them create something very similar,” Pierre Cheval said. He is the owner of Gatinois champagne house, a famous winemaker and grape grower from the village of Ay.

“I do not want my champagne to smell of vanilla. I am of the opinion that natural and subtle champagne properties should not be drowned in any tincture of timber,” said Pierre Cheval. Knowing the expertise of this winemaker his words should be listened to. His champagne is solid and has an exceptional maturing potential, which is often adhered to champagnes influenced by oak. Christian Gosset Brabant totally agrees with Pierre Cheval. Christian is the owner of Gosset Brabant champagne house and a plot of land on the highest and steepest hill in Ay, amongst vineyards called the crown of Pinot Noir in Champagne region.

The neighbours from Pinot Noir kingdom are supported by winemakers from a nearby region. They own the best Chardonnay vineyards in Mesnil sur Oger. Yves Moncuit the owner of Pierre Moncuit champagne house said that oak would make his champagne too heavy, it would affect its pure mineral taste. “My champagne should be a real, pure and natural product,” added Pierre Peters champagne house owner Rudolf Peters. The winemaker from Vergnon house - Christopher Constant and his colleague - the inheritor of Legras RL house Julien Barbier from Chouilly village are of the same opinion.

Do the big producers agree with those small winemakers who are valued amongst the professionals? Well, some of them do. Such grand winemakers as Veuve Cliquot and Pol Roger declared to have never used oak for the fermentation and maturing of their wines.

Still, a number of representatives of Grande marques use oak at one or another stage.

For example producers of Louis Roederer champagne house keep their reserve wines in oak barrels and are constantly increasing the amount of oak wines in their champagnes. Their main winemaker Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon personally selects oak trees in Argonne forest. Only fifteen years later barrels will be made from those trees for the house of Louis Roederer. The forest is three hundred and fifty years old. It stretches forty kilometres long and ten kilometres wide and is situated sixty kilometres east of Reims. There is no other forest like that in the world.

Even the supporters of such light and elegant style as Pommery sometimes depart from the rules. Their main winemaker - the charismatic Thierry Gasco on and off makes a small amount of distinctive champagne from wine fermented in 205 l barrels. Mumm matures some dosage wines in barrels as well.

Timber helps to reveal the taste

In a famous champagne house Bollinger wine for vintage champagne is fermented only in old small Burgundian oak barrels. “Oak is a life insurance for our great wines”, their representative said. However, a lighter style champagne mix Special Cuvee contains a great deal of wines fermented in steel containers. Another celebrity - co-owner of Jacquesson house -Jean Herve Chiquet told that a great part of their wines were fermented in huge oak barrels (this was the reason why oak taste was not felt in their champagne). However, depending on the quality of the harvest, they sometimes had to use steel tanks. “We plan to switch exclusively to oak in the nearest future, since oak helps to reveal the properties of terroir wine,” the representative said.

A winemaker Benoit Tarlant ferments his wines depending on the harvest of the year: either in oak barrels or in steel tanks. “Everything depends upon the nature,” he says. His famous prestige category champagne Cuvee Louis is made exclusively from wines fermented and matured on oak barrels. His colleague and friend the young inheritor of Laherte house ferments about 70 of his wines in barrels. He uses as much as seven species of grapes allowed to grow in Champagne region for his brand Les7. Champagne Les7 contains wine produced following soleros method. It happens that A. Laherte ferments exceptional wines in metal tanks and later pours them in to small barrels for several months. “There is one disadvantage in using oak barrels – it requires much more work. But champagne production is our life and passion. Wood is a noble material, whereas metal seems to me like something very technical,” explains Aurelien.

The young star in Champagne is Alenxandre Chartogne. He took over his father’s champagne house Chartogen Taillet and turned it into one of the most desired companies among sommelier of the best restaurants in the world. He explained that fermentation type depends on the place where the vineyard is situated, the local microclimate and soil. As an alternative to steel tanks he has recently acquired the so called “egg”, which is an egg shaped cement tank where the wine can breathe like in a barrel and avoid oak tincture. His newest creation is Les Barres champagne made out of grapes of old not grafted species Pinot Meunier. This wine is fermented exclusively in oak barrels. No wonder, since he was trained by A. Selosse who is the pioneer of oak renaissance in Champagne region.

“To use oak or not to use oak – it all depends on the quality and properties of the grapes. If the wine produced is powerful and strong – then the influence of oak fits it very well. The taste of timber in wine will not be felt since expressive wine will overpower it. Whereas tender wine produced from specific grapes might be smothered by vanilla or cream aroma which are given by the oak. For such wines I choose the “eggs” or steel tanks. My experience and constant experimentation help me to choose the proper tank. The biggest advantage of oak barrels is the possibility of the wine to breathe, but at the same time the oxidation process is going on. So, the winemaker should be on the alert all the time. I use barrels from 3 to 9 years old. They let in less air and less effect the taste of the wine as compared to the new ones,” the winemaker explains.

Not a step without oak

Producers that ferment their wines exclusively in oak barrels are very scarce. They have not changed this tradition through generations.

One of them is Krug. In this house wine is fermented in small Aragon oak barrels. 10-15% of the barrels are new and the rest are rather old. There are about five thousand of them all in all. It is an interesting fact that those barrels are covered by a layer of wax to protect wine from oxidation. After fermentation the wine is matured for the next three months. Then the wine might “visit” up to ten different barrels and each of them would add different taste shades. When the wine gains complexity it is finally poured into metal containers. The main aim of this complicated process is to let the wine “to make friends with the oxygen”. That is one of the main reasons why Krug champagne matures so long – the majority of the brands are kept for over thirty years.

Another classical oak admirer is the house of Alfred Gratien. Here Nicolas Jaeger – a winemaker of the fourth generation (his grandfather and father worked for the house of Alfred Gratien)- buys five year old 228 l capacity barrels from Chabli. There are approximately eight hundred barrels in their cellars where the wine is fermented and matured for six months. “Micro oxidation in the barrels provides our wine with richer taste, a longer lasting after taste and more interesting properties,” Nicolas tells. After extended conversations with him it became clear that Alfred Gratien Company does use metal tanks after all. It appears that wine from juice of the second pressing is fermented there. Champagne produced from this wine is sold for one supermarket chain in Germany.

Anselme Selosse is undoubtedly the leader amongst small producers admiring oak. He is the owner of Jacque Selosse champagne house and one of the most original winemakers in Champagne, and the tutor for the young talents in the region. He studied the theory of wine making in Beaune Lyceum, Burgundy. When he came back to Champagne he started reviving the ancient winemaking traditions and creating new ones. The essence of wine is soil. Some champagne experts can hardly describe Anselme`s champagne. It is something between champagne and white Burgundian wine.

This winemaker buys oak tanks from the most famous farms in Burgundy. There one can see barrels of 228, 400 and even 600 litres. His champagne Substance is made from double soleros wine. 22% of which is poured into the new mix for future champagne. It gives it impressive aromas of ginger, spices, wholemeal toasted bread and caramel. “I see a lot of similarities between the white merkel soil in Caceres region in Spain and chalk in Champagne. Soleros method helps to avoid the influence of changeable local weather on wine and still gives it the best properties provided by the soil. There are many winemaking theories and a winemaker ought to know them. Still, one should always be a creator not only a maker,” Anselme reasons.
Oak gently enhances the union between wine and air, which in Anselme`s opinion, later underlines the sought after mineral taste in champagne, which vine roots pass into the grapes.

All these arguments, contemplations and philosophic considerations were collected over several years after visiting more than sixty most famous winemakers in Champagne region. It is not possible to make a personal opinion and become an opponent of oak or its passionate supporter. All the winemakers that were visited or interviewed make the most wonderful wines of the region. One conclusion can be drawn: it is not the technology that is important. It all depends on the talent of the winemaker, the gigantic work put in it, unlimited passion for terroire and infinite courage.

June 2012

Jolanta Smiciene

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