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To oak or not to oak?

10514225_10153578711384463_5576567577170584624_oThe wine industry, like most others, is not immune to the tidal force that we have come to call ‘fashion’. Chardonnay is one wine particularly which once enjoyed the Big-Brother style fame and fortune, then to be cruelly dropped by the public in favour of less oaky alternatives. Its image has never quite recovered, not helped by TV characters such as Kath and Kim who like to enjoy their glass of ‘Kardonnay’ (so-pronounced because of the French silent ‘h’) whilst arguing about the pros and cons of a ‘monogamy’ kitchen table. As hilarious as the show may be, it does highlight the impact that perception can have on the wine industry.
On a recent trip to Bodegas Pittacum in North-West Spain, a tasting of their excellent wines - almost exclusively made from the indigenous Mencia grape - sparked a debate amongst the sommeliers I was with as to the pros and cons of oaking a wine. These wines all received a period of time in high quality French oak, ranging from 4 months to 14. In the blue corner: let the grape speak for itself. Many of the vines in the vineyard are old and situated on the best terroir for miles around, so why do anything to them? In the red corner: we’ve just tasted the result of oaking and it was excellent, so drink up! And it’s true, they were excellent. From the youthful Petit Pittacum to its distinguished grandfather Aurea, the wines were superb examples of the grape being shown off at different price points and at different stages.
I am always far keener on playing Devil’s advocate than actually picking aside, and being the most inexperienced of the group, I kept quiet, but I was forming my opinion in quiet reflection whilst sipping from a dessert wine that they are currently working on straight from the barrel. This is how I see it:
When a child first sits down to learn the piano, they will no doubt quickly discover the sustain pedal, and will no doubt take great delight in playing ‘Three Blind Mice’ with the pedal held firmly to floor creating a muddy sound which totally loses the tune and all finesse – and drives parents mad. Sorry mum and dad. The teacher will tell them to stop and for the next few years they will play everything with no pedal at all, which can sound dry and lacking in soul. Finally, they will learn how to use the pedal properly. Certain pieces of music will require more than others, and the pianist will decide just how much is needed to soften the moments in the music that need it, and allow the bright notes of the piano to shine through unimpeded at others. A winemaker is no different. Chardonnay went out of fashion because it went through a phase of too much oak (that darn sustain pedal). Other varieties suffered a similar fate. But at Pittacum, the winemaker is using oak to add that extra dimension to the grapes. It’s a seamless addition, but adds extra complexity and smoothness.
It’s of course also arguable that using oak with Mencia opens it up to a wider market, as the grape itself does not have the reputation of Tempranillo or Garnacha. But either way, the winemaker must not work with the flow of fashion, but follow their intuition to create their masterpiece. After all, it is them who work alongside the grapes year in year out. The debate went on unresolved until we were interrupted by food, but I think the moral victory went to a young Bulgarian woman who closed with the line “Finishing a wine with oak can be like finishing a dress with a good pair of shoes”. Let’s just hope they don’t clash.

Dave, Buon Vino