Oaky Cokey!

In an uncharacteristically technical interlude I’d like to talk to you about oak, wine designations and why you shouldn’t always trust them.  Hang on… don’t click “close” just yet.  This topic caused an extended and interesting (yes really) debate at our recent Spanish Flight Club.  Our host for the evening explained that in Rioja the designations Crianza, Reserva and Grand Reserva describe the method of wine-making and are not , per se, a marker of quality.  He spoke with particular emphasis about the use of oak and explained why our favourite winemaker in Rioja (Bodegas Rioja) doesn’t make a Grand Reserva because they don’t want to kill their wine through over-oaking.  Their Roda 1 Reserva 2005 is one of the best wines we stock and our finest Rioja by far.  I’m happy to sell it at £55 with a straight face but it’s “only” a Reserva…

This led to a very fair question:

“How do we pick out the good wines if the designators we had thought indicated quality actually don’t?”

This elicited a very predictable (but nonetheless truthful) answer from me:

“That’s where you need to trust your wine merchant to find the the good ones for you”

And frankly that’s true.  We taste a huge range of wines and reject most of them before deciding what to offer up to you.  Traditional quality markers aren’t the whole story; take two of the big ones Premier Cru and Grand Cru in Burgundy.  Those terms relate to the vineyards not the wine in the bottle.  It means that the pockets of land the grapes are grown on are judged to be the best in the region (the top 1% of land in the case of Grand Cru).  That’s reassuring to an extent but is the land the grapes originate from the whole story?  Of course not – there’s plenty of opportunity for bad vintages, winemaking errors and a host of other opportunities for things to go awry.

Just to add to the problem in Bordeaux the terms Premier Cru and Grand Cru are attached to the Châteaux not the land where the grapes are grown.  You see the problem?  So the next time your favourite newspaper’s wine club offers you a case of wine that seems really cheap but it must be OK because, y’know…there’s a Gran Reserva in there and even a Premier Cru, just let your finger hover before clicking the “buy now” button and have a little think…


Anyway – back to the oak.  After the Spanish Flight Club a blog on the topic of oak and classification landed in my inbox from a wine writer I’ve recently started following – Simon Woods.  I’ve been struck by the way he writes about wine in a very accessible and no-nonsense style.  He pulls off the neat trick of taking a complicated and expansive topic, sifting out all the pretentious guff and presenting the important stuff in a way that makes sense. We’ve recently started selling one of his books “I don’t know much about wine but I know what I like” (£10 since you ask – yes the perfect price for a small Christmas gift).  I’ve kept a personal copy for home – read into that what you will!

Simon kindly gave us permission to re-post his blog here; hope you find it interesting.  I’ve redacted the names of the wine he tasted and the supplier (for no better reason than it enabled me to use redacted in a sentence).

sw-pic-2013Apologies to %&? Wines for picking on the ?!@£ Gran Reserva 2009 from Cariñena, it could have been one of several other wines I come across each year that have me thinking ‘mutton dressed as lamb.’

The description from the @@£$% site says, ‘It’s spent 24 months evolving in top quality oak barrels with 5 years bottle age, making this a mature, deluxe red wine.’

Hmm… The almost pristine condition of the wine’s cork suggested that it had been in the bottle far less than five years, maybe even less than five months. And I’m not going to take issue with the fact that the wine had been in barrel for 24 months, but the overt oak flavour and slightly rubbery character suggested that these 2 years had been extremely recent, rather than in the early stages of the wines ageing process.

The requirements in Spain for putting a designation such as Crianza, Reserva or Gran Reserva say that the wine must be in both oak and bottle for minimum periods of time, with a further regulation being put on the age of the wine prior to release. Precise rules vary from place to place, but in Cariñena, according to the region’s website, a Gran Reserva red must have ‘…an aging period of at least 60 months, from which 18 months at least being in oak barrels having a maximum capacity of 300 liters, and in the bottle the rest of the same period.’

Traditionally, the oak ageing would have been at the start of a wine’s life, bit the rules don’t stipulate that this has to be the case. So I suspect there are wines being made with little or no oak influence that are then stored, either in inert tanks or in bottles, until a customer comes knocking on the door. If they want the wine as it is, then great, they can have it. If they want something that can carry a Reserva or Gran Reserva tag, then the wine will be decanted into barrels for the requisite amount of time.

An advantage of this for the producer is that there’s no need to spend big money upfront on oak, nor to store oaked wines in bottle for a number of years before a buyer materialises. A disadvantage is that oak purchases will be sporadic, which will put the producer well down the pecking order on the coopers’ lists. Moreover, the wine won’t have the post-oaking settling time in bottle to round out the impact of the oak (for the chefs among you, using oak at this late stage is like adding a dry spice such as ground cumin to a dish just before serving, rather than right at the start).

So when you try a wine produced in this fashion, you often notice a) strident oak and b) not especially top class oak. Spain is the main culprit here, largely because a certain type of wine buyer is impressed by the words ‘Reserva’ or ‘Gran Reserva’ on the label. Unfortunately they’re no longer a guarantee of quality.

The sad thing was that in this instance, the wine, a blend of 60% Cabernet, 30% Garnacha and 10% Tempranillo, would have been better and cheaper without the oak. Please just get used to the idea that Gran Reserva at sub-£10 is not a wise purchase.

Read more from Simon here.