Ever since we got bored with heavily-oaked Chardonnay that emerged from Australia in the late 1980s oak has had a bad reputation. It can help to soften the tannins in a red wine but drinkers do not seem to want any hint of oak near their white wines, thank you very much. Fresher varieties of white wine such as Sauvignon Blanc should rarely be exposed to it. However what I love about oak is that it can go about its work exerting its influence without raising its head above the radar.
“Barrel Fermented” means just what it says, the wine was fermented, a process that turns the grape juice into an alcoholic beverage with the aid of yeast and sugars, in barrels. The oak barrels are likely to have been used for several years so will effectively be almost neutral. Barrels of 1-2 years old may impart a little flavour if at all; particularly as the process only lasts for around 5-15 days. However what tends to come hand-in-hand with barrel fermentation is a period of time resting on lees.
After fermentation the yeast cells die and fall to the base of the barrel or tank. If large stainless steel tanks have been used then the lees will usually be removed while the wine settles and ages before bottling. In barrel the wine tends to stay in contact with the lees. They impart nutrients, richness and give the wine added complexity and character. The combination of oak and lees gives the wine a much enhanced texture and a longer finish, as I tell my students this is an indicator of a good quality wine.
An additional and related process is Batonage – stirring of the lees. This could take place on several occasions during the ageing period and rather than increase the intensity of the flavour it actually reduces the effect and the taste of oak on the palate. These techniques are reasonably fashionable for both Chenin Blanc and Chardonnay in the New World; South Africa and California specifically. In some of the better examples I would challenge anyone in a blind tasting to judge whether or not the wines had been exposed to oak.
A prime example is available in your nearest friendly M&S store. Villiera, Traditional Barrel Fermented, Chenin Blanc, South Africa– it isn’t cheap at just over RM100 but it is quite delicious, fermented and aged in French Oak (a more subtle choice than American oak which can be a little loud…I say no more). It tastes light and refreshing with a wonderfully smooth silky texture. A treat for the weekend maybe?