Going Naked for All the Right Reasons

wine barrels

Oak wasn’t seen as a “flavor” agent. Not a couple of millennia ago, when it began to replace amphorae in the making and shipping wine.

Oak, writes Jamie Goode in The Science of Wine, “just happened to be the best way of storing and transporting liquid, and until the advent of epoxy-lined cement and stainless-steel tanks, winemakers lacked alternatives.”

Oak worked well for these purposes because it was plentiful, pliable and water-tight. Later, as oak use became more widespread, particular effects on wine began to be seen, if not fully understood (it was the slow exposure to air that was doing the trick): softer tannins, more intense color, greater clarity.

And new flavors. Through compounds like lactones and vanillin, oak was adding flavor notes to wine that people found pleasing. This worked well for years, decades, centuries even. But in the modern era, the use of oak began to get out of hand.

We knew this was this case when instead of putting wine into oak, some winemakers began to put oak into wine, in the form of oak powder or oak chips. Or, instead of fermenting or aging wine in barrels that had been used many times, and which thus imparted less powerful oak flavoring, they put the wine into a brand new barrel, and then racked it into another brand new barrel for yet more oak influence.

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Inevitably, there was a backlash. First it happened with Chardonnay, a notorious oak victim. Unoaked or “naked” Chardonnays began to turn up. While oaked Chardonnay remained the overwhelming preference of consumers, there even came to be a bit of a cool factor to ordering unoaked Chardonnay, a development that wine marketers noticed and began to play to.

But this was kind of missing the point. Because oak in and of itself isn’t a problem, even in Chardonnay. The Chardonnays acknowledged to be the best in the world – the rich white wines of the Côte de Beaune in Burgundy – see plenty of new oak. Meanwhile, in another part Burgundy – Chablis – flinty Chardonnays that get nearly as much acclaim see little to no oak at all.

The moral of the story being, whether to use no oak, a lot of oak, new oak or old oak shouldn’t be about marketing, or habit, or fad – it should be appropriate to the nature of the grape and the purpose of the wine.

So it is that protea’s Red blend and Chenin Blanc both see no oak.

For our Red, the right combination of Cabernet Sauvignon (53 percent) and Merlot (47 percent) is key to making the wine work. Importantly, too, the Red is aged a good 18 months in concrete vats. As the Wine Enthusiast noted, this is a material that, while not permeable like oak, offers advantages over stainless steel, as “tiny pinches of oxygen” in the surface of the concrete “help to preserve aromatics, tame tannins and improve mouthfeel.”

The result is a wine with big, bright fruit that offers immediate drinking pleasure and the ability to get along with a wide range of foods.

With the Chenin, we aim for a fresh, clean and lively wine. And we find that our bush-vine Chenin Blanc grapes come packed with enough innate richness and character not to leave the wine feeling, uh, naked without any oak.

Image: L’Ormarins, Anthonij Rupert Wines.

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