Not oaky-dokey

Wood is meant to add some subtle seasoning to wine, but too many winemakers evidently prefer trees to vines. Doug Wregg lifts aloft a two-by-four and takes aim at the overoaked atrocities

 

A rare glimpse of a coopers’ training camp, somewhere near Marmandais

SO I SAID to my friend Carlo: “Let’s drink something dangerous.” In retrospect I’m not sure what I meant by that. Partly I meant “let’s spend more money than we would normally do on a bottle of wine and risk being disappointed”, but the sneaking, faux-natural, quasi-spiritual part of me wanted to sample an extreme wine that would trip the light fandango and send tiny squalls of reverberating flavours to the outer limits of my palate. Or something.

I order a rich Marmandais wine. The cuvée above the cuvée, so to speak. More is more, right?

Wrong.

At first the upfront fruit fronts up, but after a couple of snifters I feel like Woody Woodpecker rattling my beak against a solid oak tree. As the wine opened up it closed down, as if knackered by extreme lacquer, the classic old Duke of York style: It marched all the fruit up the hill, then it marched it down. A classic example of underwined oak.

And the wood tannins grow and grow and my tongue becomes enveloped in leather. That oak – not so much a structural corset as a dense overlay of toasty sweetness bruléed by an overenthusiastic blowtorch. I mentally contrasted this with a ridiculously drinkable, unassumingly rustic Marcillac (also from this part of south west France) from jester-grower Jean-Luc Matha that I had consumed the previous night, single-handedly. It had slithery red fruits, was tinged with graphite and edged with iron and blood and condensed the sentiment “I sneer at your oak and I generally thumb my bulbous nose at your extraordinary pretensions” into the concise command “Drink me!”

MY ATTITUDE TOWARDS abusive oak regimes hardened further after a recent tasting of about 30 Cahors. Not my preferred summer pursuit but someone had to do it. Most growers, one might fondly imagine, would want to express the particularity of terroir in their wines and thus seek balance and vivacity. The flip side is the vigneron who develops a selection or top cuvée – normally made from the ripest fruit in the best vineyard – wherein they feel the need to further coddle and cajole the juice in order to reach the pinnacle of opulence. The intention does not always beget the desired result in terms of quality. Whilst it is a perfectly legitimate aspiration to have, say, a single-vineyard expression of a wine, or to highlight the character of a grape variety in relation to the terroir in which it flourishes, delivering excellence is not the automatic by-product of creating something intensely powerful and bombastic. Wine should, like an intelligent person, be capable of subtle discourse rather than screaming extroversion.

The first Cahors in the line-up was simple wine wafting hints of sweet berries and earthy freshness. My kinda Malbec. One could imagine drinking it. Thereafter, downhill with a relentless succession of termite’s toothaches, reds hoist on their own very wooden petards, as if the oak had exploded the very soul of the wine itself. Eventually, the entire tasting became a diminishing return as my palate was gradually embalmed in a thick fug of disassociated sensations.

Harsh criticism? Not at all. I don’t actively seek faults and wish to derogate wines. In this case I love the region, but I wonder whether too many growers are now taking themselves too seriously, making wines to impress people rather than to give them pleasure. The danger, of course, is that in trying to make the wines more serious, you unmake them and allow their very spirit to unravel.

Are we to drink oak juice? Is the wine to be reverently scooped (or carved) out of the bottle with a sharp spoon? Will it digest our food or clog our arteries? Is it meant to drunk at all or placed rather on a high altar in the heaviest bottle imaginable for us to admire as the Platonic idea of a luxury wine?

Oak is not a bad thing per se; it is a kind of seasoning for wine, but should always be used sensitively. I recall tasting a wine in Bierzo a few years ago from tank that had beautiful, lifted purple fruit. If only it was left alone and bottled, but the winemaker felt the need to age the juice in eight different types of oak barrel for 18 months. Everything was diminished, the colour dulled, the aromas and fruit befuddled, a humdrum sow’s ear made out of a silk purse. In this case, as in so many others, less would have been infinitely more.

This article appears in the December 2012 edition of The Wine Merchant

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