We always hear about how the different oak treatments affect the flavour of a wine, but it is hard to envisage it.
I remember once a few years ago, doing an oak trial with a winemaker friend of mine, where we put little sticks of various different oak treatments (Mocha, Smoky, Vanillin, etc.) into bottles filled with tank samples of the wine in question. The bottles were then sealed under screwcap and left for the appropriate length of time, for the oak flavours to infuse into the wine. We then tasted the wine and did blending trials – a bit of this one + a bit of that one, etc. – so as to come up with the flavour that he was looking for. When he was happy with the preferred blend he then ordered the new oak in that ratio, so that the whole batch of that wine would come out tasting like the trial sample. Pretty cool!
The reason I mention this subject is that recently I had the fascinating experience of tasting a number of different oak treatments in finished wines made from the same base material.
Innovative and adventuresome winemaker, Gareth Trickey, of Warrumbungle Wines, Coonabarabran, sent me six 375mL bottles of his 2004 Merlot that were each from one of the different oak regimes he used on this wine as a trial. www.blowflywines.com
These were as follows:
1: Blowfly 2004 Merlot in Troncais M oak (France) – slightly medicinal, complex aromas, on the palate – very astringent, too grippy/acid on the finish, not very palatable – quite unpleasant.
2: Blowfly 2004 Merlot in Troncais M+ oak – stronger, more complex aromas, smoother, rounder, more palatable, but still very tight and austere – only just drinkable.
3: Blowfly 2004 Merlot in Nevers oak (France) – softer, less evident aromas. On the palate it is smoother, gentler, showing some of the complexity of the wine, much more palatable with a nice dry finish – a pleasant drink.
4: Blowfly 2004 Merlot in Hungarian oak – lovely aromas of tomato, onions and peppermint on the bouquet. A soft, smooth palate with hints of minty chocolate and a nice drying finish – slightly unusual but palatable.
5: Blowfly 2004 Merlot in American oak – gorgeous aromas with plenty of fine vanillin oak, on the palate, fuller richer, very appealing, quite tight on the finish and the power of the oak subdues/masks the fruit in the wine.
6: Blowfly 2004 Merlot the final blended wine – Despite a slight mustiness on the bouquet, this wine is rounder, smoother, less astringent, more complex and with great balance.
It was very interesting to see that each and every wine had quite a different mouth-feel to it, with the five tasting panellists picking three different wines as their preferred wine. Whilst I don’t know what the oak proportions are in the final blend, it was my favourite of the six and I can say that the winemaker did a great balancing act to create this final blend. It is a case of “the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.”
This was a brilliant exercise at showing how subjective the final taste of a wine is. What a great impact it can have on what the final product tastes like by altering just one variable. Out of the dozens of variables involved in making a wine (growing site, grape maturation, fermentation type, etc.), oak represents two of the last variables in this process – “What type of oak to use?” and “How long to leave the wine on the oak?” – followed only by the decision on “When to release the bottled wine”.
Thank you Gareth for this fascinating exercise which reminds one that terroir is only a part of the equation and that the winemaker's decision along the way is paramount in the flavour of the final wine. Cheers!