Cask strength

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Planks of American oak being seasoned at Bodegas Vega Sicilia, Ribera del Duero. In time, these will be made into barrels that will hold a vintage of Único for a minimum of 10 years. Photographe: Jason Lowe

The vessels that take wine from grape to bottle, through fermentation and maturation, have a huge impact on how it tastes. Here Martin Hudson MW explores the world of barriques and botte, concrete and clay

The oldest archaeological records of wine storage involve clay pots, rather than wooden vessels. Whether wood was used in ancient times is difficult to completely rule out, as wooden vessels are rarely preserved from antiquity, but evidence from sites as diverse as Anatolia, Georgia and ancient shipwrecks in the Mediterranean all point to clay amphorae being the preferred wine storage medium. Legendary underwater explorer Jacques Cousteau discovered some wine amphorae during a dive in the Mediterranean and, on opening a recovered vessel, was brave enough to taste the contents, which apparently were recognisable as wine but quickly turned to vinegar. This traditional method is still in use in Georgia and has been resurrected in wine-producing countries as varied as Spain and Chile. Clay pots do not impart any noticeable flavour to the wine they store (in wine-speak they are known as “inert” vessels), but they do allow a small amount of air to migrate into the wine. We will explore the importance of this later.

Some of the oldest preserved wooden wine vessels in Europe come from Germany around 2,000 years ago, and are not of oak, but rather the locally much more numerous and easily worked pine, which may have conferred on the wine a flavour not dissimilar to that of retsina. So why has oak become the wood of choice for all things vinous?

The reasons are identical to those justifying its long term use for building ships – it is relatively plentiful in Europe (the birthplace of the grapevine), it is waterproof and it is strong. There is a story of a Dane who in the late 20th century informed the royal family that the trees contracted for the navy were now ready, and asked if perhaps they would like to purchase them. In Denmark an emergency planting programme of oak had been instigated two centuries earlier, following the wholesale removal of all timber from the sacked Danish shipyards by the Royal Navy in 1807.

Oak is durable and waterproof, but what else makes it so good for storing wine? Firstly, as an organic entity with pores, it allows the passage of microscopic amounts of air into the wine. The oxygen in the air reacts with chemicals in the liquid to change the character of the wine in a beneficial way. In particular, the tannins found in red wine are linked together or “polymerised” by oxygen to form less aggressively bitter molecules, and can also combine with some of the colouring to make colours more long-lasting and attractive. The wood itself can contribute tannins to the wine, giving a wider spectrum of tastes and textures. Oxygen will also participate in reactions involving the acids in wine, rendering them softer to the palate. The most obvious effect of oak, however, is that it releases flavour compounds, especially vanillins, that add to the palette of flavours that emerge in the glass. The barrel-making process, discussed below, will also create sugars on the inner surface of the vessel, adding a subtle sweetness to the wine.

Not all oaks are created equal, in winemaking terms. The European oak, quercus robur, has a different array and concentration of flavour compounds to its American cousin, quercus alba. The former generally has more spicy and subtle flavours than the latter’s overtly vanilla character, so characteristic of Bourbon whiskey, but the flavours can be modified and amplified or attenuated by the barrel-making process. Where an oak grows also has an effect – French oak is particularly valued because the country’s temperate climate makes the trees quite slow-growing, giving a particularly tight grain that slows both the release of flavour compounds and the transmission of air, however oak from Bulgaria, Hungary, Slavonia (more or less contiguous with Croatia) and areas of Russia amongst others is also valued for winemaking. Winemakers are very conscious of the subtle effects of provenance on the quality of the wood, with many looking for wood from specific forests within France, such as Nevers, Allier or Tronçais. Perhaps the most extreme example of this quality control is Denis Jamain, who only uses barrels made from his own forest!

A cellar hand uses a steam hose to clean a barrel at Frog’s Leap in Napa. Photograph: Jason Lowe

Sometimes the choice of oak source may seem surprising – many top-end producers of Californian Cabernet Sauvignon such as Opus One use French rather than American oak, as they desire the more subtle flavours this yields. Traditional Riojas, such as those made by La Rioja Alta, often use American oak, rather than nearby French oak. This a result of history, from the period when large tracts of what is now the USA were Spanish territories and imported American oak was found to have a great affinity with Spanish grapes. Similarly, in Australia American oak has traditionally been used for Barossa Valley Shiraz, but more producers like Duane Coates are now adopting French oak, especially for the subtleties of Adelaide Hills Pinot Noir.

Barrel-making is a centuries old tradition. Trees selected to produce barrels are typically 100 to 200 years old and with a straight form. The wood is sawn into planks that are then dried, either by storing under shelter outdoors for up to two years, or more rapidly by kilning. The former process generally better preserves the desirable flavour compounds, but is more expensive. The barrel staves are then sawn or split into shape – American oak, because of the nature of the pores in the wood can be cut by saw and will remain waterproof, whereas European oak must be split along the grain to maintain its integrity. The staves are then traditionally toasted over an open fire prior to being formed into the characteristic barrel shape by cinching them together, with steel hoops fitted to hold the barrel body in shape.

The duration and intensity of the heat treatment will affect the degree of charring or “toast” on the inside of the staves, which will confer more or less toasted, smoky flavours to the wine and create more or less sugar on the inner surface. Finally the ends are added, bung holes bored and the barrel is ready to be shipped to the winery. The effects of cooperage are well known to winemakers. Paul Draper of Ridge in California believes in sourcing locally if possible, so uses American oak, but the care with which trees are selected, the length of time spent seasoning the wood and the subtle toast level used make the flavours these barrels yield almost indistinguishable from French oak.

How much flavour a barrel adds to wine will also be affected by a number of factors we have not yet considered. The first is the capacity of the barrel: the bigger the volume contained, the less flavour will be imparted to each bottle. In Bordeaux the traditional barrel size is 225 litres, and in Burgundy 228 litres, but throughout the world of wine, people are experimenting with barrels of greater sizes to give more subtle oak influence, particularly in Australia, where 300- and 500-litre sizes are common.

The next, equally important, factor is how often the barrel has been used – the first time a barrel stores wine, it imparts the greatest impact on flavour, diminishing with each subsequent use until, by the time it has been used three or four times, it is the air transmission which has the biggest effect. A visit to Selbach-Oster in the Mosel or Giuseppe Mascarello in Barolo will yield the sight of huge, venerable fuder or botte which are not yielding any flavour compounds to the wine they store. Arguably the most extreme use of non-flavouring wood is in the world of fortified wine, where producers of Port, Madeira and Sherry deliberately season their barrels prior to use to prevent any overt oak character detracting from their handiwork (although very old Oloroso Sherry will occasionally have a tannic character picked up from long ageing in the solera’s butts).

Are other woods used for maturing wine? Well, yes, but oak is by far the dominant variety. In the Loire valley producers such as Château des Armuseries and others have some acacia barrels in their cellars. The flavours these yield seem to particularly suit the local Chenin Blanc wines. Elsewhere, particularly in Piedmont, chestnut is traditionally used for its more subtle flavour profile.

Spotless stainless-steel tanks in the cuverie at Domaine de Montille, Burgundy. Photograph: Jason Lowe

What other materials are used for holding wine? We have already seen that clay vessels were used in antiquity, for fermentation, storage and transportation, but, more recently, concrete and stainless steel have been deployed for the former task. Concrete has very good thermal insulation characteristics, making it an excellent choice for fermentation vessels, where it self-regulates the heat generated by the fermentation process. In Bordeaux, the use of concrete vessels for this purpose is increasing, as steel is viewed as being too inert, not allowing the fermenting wine to “breathe” and consequently risking sulphurous reductive odours and flavours. Interestingly, reductive flavours were never a problem in the days of brass fittings, as the copper in the brass removed all excess sulphur.

Bare concrete tanks do cause the quite acidic wine to absorb calcium, however. This can be overcome by coating the tanks with an epoxy lining, but this can cause chemical taint to the wine. The great virtue of stainless steel as a wine-holding vessel is that it can easily be cleaned to prevent the risk of microbial spoilage. Stainless steel was adopted for fermentation and bulk storage of wine from the early 1960s, replacing large oak vessels and often concrete tanks that are now back in fashion. Stainless-steel fermentation tanks with temperature-controlling water-filled coils or jackets have enabled a range of very clean, fruit-expressive white and red wines to be made. Arguably, the ready access to such vessels made for the dairy industry powered the rise of the now ubiquitous New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, as typified by Cloudy Bay. Historically, mild steel tanks were also used, but lined to prevent contamination by corrosion, the linings often being vitreous enamel or epoxy. In the Barossa Valley, Elderton use some old steel fermenters that previously made Penfolds Grange. These are waxed each season prior to use.

Much of today’s wine is shipped in bottle, ready for sale, but in the past wine was shipped in bulk, in barrel, and then bottled at the end market. In the 17th and 18th centuries the bottles were more valuable than the wine, and would not only be monogrammed to show their ownership, but would be presented to wine merchants for re-filling from barrel on a regular basis. At Berry Bros. & Rudd, the bottling line at Basingstoke was closed as recently as the 1990s, with casks of Claret being kept on the first floor, and gravity-fed to the bottling line below.

In another example of wheels coming full circle, wine shipment in bulk is an increasing modern phenomenon, but now the vessels used are large stainless steel tanks or – more prosaically – a giant single-use plastic bag held in a standard shipping container. Such bulk shipments can yield significant transport cost savings, vital in the very competitive entry-level price point for wine. By contrast, some European quality wines, such as Sherry, which were historically shipped in barrel, must now be bottled in the region to comply with their Product of Designated Origin regulations. This has had the unexpected consequence of forcing Scotch whisky producers to look for alternative sources for barrels, leading to the rise of Bourbon cask whiskies, as the regulations for Bourbon insist that a cask may only be used for maturation once.

Oak influence in wine is quite a controversial subject, with some consumers actively disliking the flavour that oak adds, particularly to some white wines. Nevertheless, it remains part of the “gold standard” for great white Burgundy and other classics including Rioja, Sauternes and Napa Cabernet Sauvignon. The world of wine is a fashion industry, albeit moving more slowly than the world of popular music or clothes, and it is undeniable that the pendulum is currently swinging away from overt oak flavours in the glass.

This has possibly been accelerated by the increasing consumer rejection of cost-cutting measures to attain that oak gloss. A 225-litre barrique from a top French cooperage will cost in excess of 1,000 Euros, so adding approximately £3 to the price of a bottle – and that’s before the additional labour costs of dealing with barrels are taken into account. Cheaper options that have been utilised are the incorporation of oak staves in a “signpost” configuration into a steel fermentation tank, or the adding of oak offcut chips in a glorified teabag. The most extreme practice, not allowed in the EU, is the adding of extracted oak essence in liquid form. The difference in flavour quality is analogous to using a vanilla pod versus inexpensive essence or, perhaps more pertinently, drinking a cheap gin compared with a London Dry or Distilled example.

So what is the future for oak in the world of wine? Does its historical dominance guarantee a future pre-eminence? It remains part of the armoury of options a winemaker has at his or her disposal to mould the character of their wine, and arguably is more safely positioned for the future than its botanical cousin cork. It is durable and sustainable. Oak confers additional flavours and textures to wine that many rejoice in, particularly when given sufficient time in bottle to meld with the fruit. Increased understanding, much garnered by detailed research by coopers, has enabled a more sensitive incorporation of oak into the winemaking regime. But, ultimately, like so much of wine, oak is a matter of taste.

Proof for the palate

Stainless steel

2015 Berry Bros. & Rudd Chablis by Domaine du Colombier, Burgundy: This is fermented and matured in stainless steel tanks to preserve the purity of green apple and citrus fruit.

Concrete

2012 Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Domaine de Marcoux, Rhône: Marcoux believe that concrete over oak allows the wine to show a true expression terroir. The concrete tanks are temperature regulated to give optimum control in the winemaking process.

Clay

2014 De Martino Viejas Tinajas Cinsault, Itata Valley, Chile: Terracotta amphorae go back to the origins of winemaking and the belief is that they are the least aggressive vessel for wine to ferment in. The resulting wine has rich, well-defined fruit and soft tannins.

French oak

2006 Sarget de Gruaud Larose, St Julien, Bordeaux: This is classic, mature Claret, with the French oak adding cigar box, wood and spice notes to the black-fruited, savoury palate.

American oak

2004 Viña Tondonia Tinto Reserva, Bodegas R. López de Heredia, Rioja, Spain: This is old-school Rioja: American oak adds a vanilla sweetness to the red fruit, while the prolonged air contact during the ageing process gives a long, leather and nutty finish.

Slavonian oak

2012 Barolo, Falletto, Bruno Giacosa, Piedmont, Italy: The use of large old Slavonian botte softens the aggressive tannins of the Nebbiolo grape, but adds little overt flavour to this wine.

Category: Miscellaneous,Wine School

A culinary culture

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Photograph: Victoria Stewart

Txokos are societies dedicated to celebrating northern Spain’s extraordinary culinary and vinous heritage. Food writer Victoria Stewart reports on how these gastronomic gatherings came about and what goes on behind the societies’ (normally) shut doors

Sitting in a room that feels like the intersection of a village hall and a somewhat dated restaurant, on one side I see a group of men of all ages seated around a table and several glasses of cider. Meanwhile our crew of 10 – including food writers and two local food guides, one of whom has invited us – are opposite, passing around bottles of Txakoli, the locally made dry white wine, and platters of bright tomatoes drizzled with olive oil.

I have come to take part in a txoko (pronounced “chokko”) in San Sebastián, northern Spain. Translated as “little niche”, a txoko is a kind of gastronomic society (sociedad gastronómica in Spanish) where food and drink is a friendly vehicle for celebrating people and produce, and there are numerous examples all over the Basque region, with over 200 (containing members of up to 200) in this city alone. The food served depends on what is produced nearby – so in the case of San Sebastián there are white wines from Getaria, fish and seafood; further inland it might be red Riojas and vegetables.

My visit is to Peña Hipica, a mixed sociedad set up in the 1950s, where the €30 monthly membership fee covers the use of the space (most were purpose-built with professional kitchens), crockery and cleaning. As each is set up according to what its members want, here a committee of volunteers is responsible for buying alcohol – and visiting relevant local vineyards – while whoever is cooking buys the produce, and everyone pays an “honesty” bill at the end.

Our chef tonight is a cookery teacher called José who says he loves it “because txokos are never competitive – it is about eating, drinking, sharing, and having fun!” Having taught many influential chefs in the area, our host – longtime member and local food guide, Gabriella Ranelli – describes him as “an honourary member of all txokos because of the work he does”.

José’s brilliant menu includes fluffy bread made in a local bakery, anchovies of incredible saltiness, with dark pinky grey skins that glisten under olive oil, and a plate of bruschetta with egg and tuna and mayonnaise – typical Basque bites which Ranelli describes as “my all-time favourite”. After this, things ramp up as we try langoustine with red and green peppers, intensely salty rare beef and, my highlight, lusciously sweet confit peppers; dishes that taste so good they cause one of our companions to insist we award it a Michelin star.

As to the origins of txokos, there are different theories. One is that, around 1868, something called the sociedad popular was invented, giving working people (namely artisans and fishermen) a place to socialise after increasing numbers of taverns and cider houses closed at 10.30pm. Today, however, they are still considered special places where people of different backgrounds and genders (although some are men-only) can come together to drink, cook – or watch a member cook – and share the bounty.

In his 2007 essay The Social Bonds of Cooking: Gastronomic Societies in the Basque Country, sociologist Andreas Hess argues that the popularity and success of the txoko in “contributing to the maintenance of a civic equilibrium in society” is down to the sense of conviviality. And it’s exactly this atmosphere that I am struck by above all tonight. Being “neither purely public nor purely private institutions”, he writes, “rather they occupy a unique space somewhere in the middle of the continuum between the public and the private sphere” where eating together “at least when organized collectively and when sensibly institutionalized – can have a positive function”.

To Ranelli, who comes regularly and likes to cook whole fish and revuelto (a Spanish scambled egg dish), Peña Hipica is an important feature of life here. “It’s so fun!” she laughs, just as José, having finished the cooking, joins in: “So”, he smiles. “Who wants more to drink? A little rum perhaps? Go on…”

Category: Food & Wine,Spanish Wine

Joining the revolution

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The panel in action

This week saw a panel of the very best in the drinks business discuss its future in Borough Market; we sent Lex Self to report on the action

Tuesday night saw the second iteration of Borough Talks – a series of public debates, held at Borough Market, dealing with the current state and future of the food and drinks industries. It’s been a tough month for this much-loved food market – one of the oldest and largest in London – where, for centuries, people from all over the world have come to work, eat, drink, and be merry; and traders are still trying to find their feet after the horrors of June 3rd. To this end, they are being helped by the incredibly worthwhile efforts of a relief fund, to which all revenue from the events is being donated.

Entitled How to join the drinks revolution, the panel discussion brought together four experts to discuss emerging trends in the drinks industry. They were: Dave Broom, a renowned spirits writer whose books have twice won the Glenfiddich Book of the Year award; Tony Conigliaro, the legendary mixologist behind 69 Colebrook Row and Bar Termini, among others; Dan Tapper, food writer and founder of Yorkshire nano-brewery The Beak; and our very own Buyer Catriona Felstead MW.

Unsurprisingly, it was not long before the word “craft” reared its plaid-clad head – much to the chagrin of Dan Tapper, who insisted it was heresy that multinational brewers were able to call their beer “craft” in the UK, while in the US special certification was required. Cat, equally bemused by the ubiquity of the word, explained that in winemaking “artisanal” often had the same cringe-inducing affect. What both agreed on was that homebrewing and distillation is no longer the reserve of odd-looking men in long coats who fish for eels in urban canals – it’s big business. Indeed, as Cat explained, the market is now so highly saturated that consumers will look for any way they can differentiate between brands, or, as she put it: they “don’t just care about the wine, they want to know the name of the producer’s dog”. All agreed that the craft beer revolution is reflective of a general movement among drinkers to “go back to basics”, eschewing bigger brands in favour of quality smaller producers. In the wine world, this is known as “minimal intervention winemaking” – an insistence on sitting back and letting nature take its course: a movement that has taken off in places like South Africa and Australia, but not so much in the Haut-Médoc.

That said, Cat then revealed that, despite an invigorated market and more savvy consumer base, a recent study by the WSTA revealed that the average amount spent on a bottle of wine in the UK is £5.40 – which, after tax, duty, shipping, etc, means only 60p spent on the actual liquid contents. This prioritisation of price would appear to give big multinational brewers, distillers and winemakers the upper hand; however, Dave Broom insisted that small producers still had an ace up their sleeve – authenticity. Though bigger companies can pay for slick marketing, clued-up consumers are able to see through this, and social media channels allow start-ups to communicate with and sell directly to customers. Dan Tapper urged smaller brewers and those starting out to eschew marketing agencies in favour of a DIY approach – starting with telling their own story. This was echoed by Tony, who gave examples of new bars that had opened in London and tried to find a shortcut to prosperity, rather than focusing on the important thing – quality and personality.

Miraculously, we’d managed to go an hour without mentioning the biggest buzz(kill) word of the moment: Brexit. Never fear, Tony heavily alluded to the current state of economic uncertainty. He spoke of why London currently possessed the most dynamic cocktail scene on the planet, praising the affect that the presence of so much international talent had on innovation. Indeed, as I sipped on one of his “Snow” cocktails – created to simulate the sensation of a snowflake falling on one’s tongue, of course – I mused on how far London had come in this respect, from being the inspiration behind Hogarth’s Gin Alley to the home of so much positive innovation.

The next Borough Talks will take place on Tuesday 12th September and will deal with the issue of sustainability in food production, questioning whether a modern city can develop the infrastructure required to feed itself.

Category: Food & Wine,Miscellaneous

Made for Riesling: Thai yellow prawn curry

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Bangkok, Thailand. Photograph: Sven Scheuermeier

We asked our Head Chef Stewart Turner to come up with the perfect recipe to match off-dry Riesling: he came up with this sumptuous spicy prawn curry, inspired by the flavours of Bangkok

I’m a real fan of Thai food (well, I’ve yet to meet a cuisine that I don’t like…), but Thai is more subtle and aromatic than other cooking from that region. Addictively spicy, it’s so moreish.

This recipe is my take on a dish that I saw on a Rick Stein show, in which he met David Thompson in a Bangkok market. David is probably the western authority on Thai food and held a Michelin star for his restaurant Nahm in London, the first Thai restaurant to receive such an accolade.

This is a dish we served at our first fine wine and Thai dinner held in the cellars at No.3, and is perfect alongside Riesling. I’ve tried to incorporate some seasonal British ingredients with the classic Thai flavours.

Thai yellow prawn curryServes 4
  • 20 large tiger prawns – unpeeled
  • 4 heaped tablespoons of Thai yellow curry paste (see below)
  • 150g bok choy – leaves torn and bases cut into 5cm batons
  • 150ml coconut milk
  • 15ml lime juice
  • 15g palm sugar
  • 15ml fish sauce
  • 30g tamarind pulp
  • 100g fresh peas – blanched
  • 100g picked broad beans
  • 2 green bird’s eye chillies – thinly sliced

Peel the prawns, reserving the heads and shells. Place the shells in a pan with 450ml water and a pinch of salt. Bring to the boil, skim well and simmer for 20 minutes. Strain 300ml of this prawn stock into a clean pan. Add the curry paste and simmer for a minute. Add the bok choy bases and prawns. Simmer for another minute or two until the prawns have turned pink and are just cooked, then mix in the peas, bok choy leaves and broad beans. Add the coconut milk, lime juice, sugar, fish sauce and tamarind. Bring back to a simmer and serve. Spoon into a serving bowl and finish with the sliced green chillies. Serve with some jasmine rice and a bottle of off-dry Riesling.

Thai yellow curry paste

  • 3 dried red Kashmiri chillies
  • 1 red bird’s eye chilli – roughly chopped
  • 3 lemongrass stalks – roughly chopped
  • 25g galangal – peeled and roughly chopped
  • 50g fresh turmeric – peeled and roughly chopped
  • 50 shallots – peeled and roughly chopped
  • 30g garlic cloves – peeled and roughly chopped
  • 2 tsp shrimp paste

Soak the dried chillies in hot water for about 30 minutes. Drain them, reserving about 50ml of the liquid. Place all the ingredients, including the soaked chillies and water, in a small food processor or spice grinder and grind to a smooth paste.

Category: Food & Wine