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binTasting: Oak, Smoke & Four Toasted Barrels

How lovely trees are: stately and secure – and they have that enviable ability to grow older and more beautiful. With the chill of autumn they are brought into relief with leaf-fall and it’s at this time too that fires are lit both inside and out – bringing with them the evocative aromas of their species – be it the sweet fragrance of applewood or the grey, sappy ash. My palate too welcomes autumn and I’m more attuned to oaked wines and their warm flavours of toasted bread, of vanilla and of grilled nuts. Many words are wasted on oaked wines, but I really think such invective is poorly aimed and should be directed instead at imbalanced wine and not at the beautiful oak tree.

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While the flavour of oak in a wine can enhance it, oak age is more importantly used to give structure in the form of tannins and micro-oxygenation which assists with maturation (there’s a tip for you, Laboratoires Garnier). Barrels can be used in more than one vintage, with the oak flavours diminishing with each use. The cooper’s role is an important one: in selection of the wood, in construction and finally in toasting, the process of burning the inside of a cask. Coopers usually offer four levels of ‘toast’ from light, through medium and medium+ to high toast. Try asking for that at breakfast time – my toaster, with its infinitely variable dial, can at best manage ‘random’.

For red wines, Pinot Noir gives me the highest contrast between oaking styles. The wine is always fragrant, and this delicacy can be enhanced as well as spoilt by the proportion of oak (with the remainder aged in stainless steel, for example), the number of vintages the barrel has been used and the time the wine spends within them. The 2008 Bourgogne Pinot Noir, Tollot-Beaut (£20) shows off a useful, smoky medium+ toast against the fine acidity and farmyard funk of its terroir. For balanced simplicity, choose Artesa Rioja Crianza 2009 (£9), all fine fruit and vanilla-scented oak from medium toast American oak barrels for 12 months, one fifth of which were new, or ‘first fill’.

Descriptive oaking in white wines is often elusive, but for a blissful experience look no further than the exquisite Saskia 2009 (£20), a rich, South African white from Chenin Blanc and Viognier. It has spent 10 months in French oak barrels, of which one in six was new.

We don’t all like oak, just as we don’t all like winter – but it can be worth researching rather than resisting the pleasures of both. Perhaps it’s also worth considering that your next glass ofChampagnehas most likely seen the side of an oak barrel that you haven’t?

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binTasting: Oak, Smoke & Four Toasted Barrels

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