Oak and the Aussie red
The note came from an American wine enthusiast passionate about Australian wine. ‘I keep reading you Aussie wine scribes calling for less oak in your reds,’ he wrote. ‘I think you’re making a mistake. Australian wines are in danger of becoming too sweet, and oak serves to dampen down that sweetness. The less new oak you guys use, the sweeter the wines taste.’
My first reaction was to disagree strongly – new oak often imparts sweet vanilla or coconut or coffee or chocolate-like flavours, and so with less new oak the wines should be the opposite; less sweet – but once I got over that it made me think about the role of oak in Australian red wine. I remember a time when I’d first caught the wine bug and was lusting after ever-bigger and ever-richer styles, when the sweet, slippery taste and feel of new oak was every bit a positive for me. I did not want ‘balance’ in my reds; I wanted lots of new oak, and lots of rich dark fruit, and bugger-all of anything else.
Indeed, back then I wouldn’t have described the taste of new oak as ‘sweetness’ – I would simply have called it ‘rich smoothness’. Back then I may even have agreed with my American correspondent.
One person I didn’t agree with, back then, was ex-sommelier, tv presenter and wine consultant Grant Van Every. I remember speaking with him around the turn of the century, and when asked of his opinion of Barossa shiraz, him replying, ‘I like Barossa shiraz. I just don’t much like the top end of Barossa shiraz. I like the $15 - $25 Barossa reds – not because of the price, but because of the taste. They’re good, balanced drinks to me. The top end is too over-oaked and over-done for my tastes.’
Needless to say, these days I agree with Grant Van Every to the last letter. Often, when I’m tasting a range of red wines from a single Australian producer, I enjoy the wines less as we move up the scale. The mid-range wines are often fresh with both fruit flavour and appropriate oak; the high priced wines are fresh with fruit flavour and inappropriate oak. It often even seems as though the main difference between the mid-priced wine and the high priced wine is the amount of oak; the fruit weight, and flavour, often seem pretty much the same.
And because of this inappropriate oaking, the quality of the fruit flavours are often masked, or obscured. In other words, to taste the best of Australian red wine grapes, you often have to go to the mid-priced wines to get a clear view of them.
A good example is the upcoming release of the 2004 Saltram No 1 Shiraz – which I think is seriously overoaked; I much prefer the 2004 and 2005 Saltram Mamre Brook shiraz wines, which are both excellent examples of Barossa shiraz fruit flavour.
Though the problem is not confined to blockbuster reds. I often (though not always) prefer the ‘standard’ Coldstream Hills pinot noir to the reserve, simply because the oak on the reserve is often so dominant that the true taste of pinot noir is obscured. The 2005 and 2006 Reserve Coldstream Hills pinots, while high quality wines in their style, are good examples of this. The ‘standard’ 2005 Coldstream Hills pinot noir is a far more enjoyable wine to my tastes.
All that said – in the past year I’ve had a couple of experiences with very old wines that have made me wonder about oak; or at least have confirmed a few suspicions. The first was a bottle of Mount Pleasant Hunter Shiraz from the 1940s, made by legendary winemaker Maurice O’Shea. This was a wine matured not only in big old oak, but in oak that had been wax-lined – as a result, there’s a good chance that it did not have any oak flavour at all.
And yet, at over 60 years of age, it tasted magnificent; fresh, sweet-scented, extraordinarily complex, lengthy and divine. If anyone ever says that you need oak to make an ageworthy wine style; they are wrong.
The other experience was at the Penfolds Rewards of Patience tasting, which featured bottles of Penfolds Grange from the early 1950s. These wines, of course, had been made using 100 per cent new American oak. Even as fifty-plus year old wines, I expected them to still carry some of the coffeed heaviness of that oak.
And yet they didn’t. They were light on their feet, ethereal and complex, lengthy and sublime. I’ve had people say to me that heavily American-oaked wines tend to taste good as youngsters and then fall over; they are wrong.
What both of these great old wines had in common, I suspect, was that their various components were in balance as young wines, even if their various components were very different to one another.
And what this makes me suspect, too, is that some of the mid-priced wines that we love drinking today are not just for early drinking; they might just live for a lot longer than we expect, given both the right storage conditions and us drinkers being able to keep our hands off them.
They might, for the same reason that they are good drinks; they have the balance of fruit and oak right.
Campbell Mattinson is the author of Why the French Hate Us: The Real Story of Australian Wine (Hardie Grant, $28.95). www.whythefrenchhateus.com.au
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