It’s snowing outside and your only warmth is coming from the crumbling logs burning away in your fireplace. It’s time to relax, appreciate the special things in life and play your favourite crooners in the background of your self-made idyllic setting. What’s missing? A sumptuous oak aged Champagne of course!
You know you love the warm, smoky textures and flavours but are unsure how to keep finding the right cuvées that give you that fuzzy feeling inside. Oak has been a contentious topic in Champagne for the last couple of decades and it has seen a variety of different uses and trends. We will look at these methods and examples and delve deeper to understand the use of Oak in Champagne and answer the question of; ‘What the Fût de Chêne?!’
The use of oak is a common method across many of the worlds wine regions, however in the late 1960’s Champagne had started to mainly move to the use of stainless steel to age and ferment their wines. The wine growers believed that in a stainless steel tank the wine was much easier to control and this new technology was highly appreciated. Some of the big players however decided that oak was part of their DNA. Houses such as Krug and Bollinger famously stuck with their oak casks and barrels (Fût de Chêne), after all it helped them create the wines that are revered all over the world to this day. However in the last 20 years or so we have seen a resurgence of the use of Oak in a variety of ways. Some would say the for the better, some would say for the worse!
FERMENTATION AND AGEING
There are two main stages in the Champagne making process of which Oak can be used. Fermentation and Ageing. Some vignerons will also chose to allow malolactic fermentation to take place in Oak. Fermenting wines in oak barrels or casks is a traditional method and tends to allow the wine to harmonise with the wood to help enhance the wines natural flavours. Some winemakers also age their wines in Oak which means the wine spends a lot more time in contact with the wood and picks up even more oaky flavour. Dependant on the preference of the wine maker they may age 10-15% percent of their wines this way which can create a subtle yet enticing flavour to the Champagne when blending. Wines that are 100% aged in Oak are still controversial as some believe it doesn’t allow the terroirs natural aromas and taste to be showcased. However this is mainly down to the size of barrels and more importantly the age!
OLD OAK v NEW OAK
The latest generation of Champenois have opted to use Oak as a point of difference, to be unique and innovative. But with many having the same idea this seems to be causing the opposite effect. With more and more Oak being used this has caused a raft of new oak barrels to be produced and used for Champagne. This creates an overtly oak flavour and texture which over awes the natural beauty of the wine of which wine makers need to be cautious of if using new barrels. Champagne regularly purchases its casks or barrels from Burgundy which tend to have more age and therefore become much more harmonious with Champagne. Those that jumped on this trend in the early 2000’s are now seeing the fruits of their initiative with barrels of 20-30 years age which are creating very impressive Champagnes.
ONE SIZE DOESN’T FIT ALL
Want to cause a stir in Champagne? Talk about the size of your barrels! The traditional Burgundy barrels would regularly hold around 225 litres of juice which didn’t leave much room for the wine makers to experiment. Now times have changed and different sized barrels and casks are sourced and created to specific requirements to suit the Champenois ideas. If you visit a winery in Champagne you are now likely to come across a variety of different sized barrels. Some opt for micro-vinification in small barrels to keep individual plots separate. Some use huge casks to age in a solera method to blend different vintages. There is no said right or wrong but it all comes down to how they want their wine and terroir to express itself.
So when it comes to Oak in Champagne it’s not as simple as a decision between yes and no. There are a lot of factors to take in to account. Fermentation, malolactic fermentation, ageing and battonage could all take place in Oak. The age of the Oak will play a huge part. The size of barrels adds another piece to the puzzle. Which plots, vineyards and grapes do we use for Oak? What percentage of the wine has been in Oak? All these possibilities make Champagne the incredible wine that it is and which allows for us as consumers to be able to experience and array of styles, terroir and flavours that make us just want to keep going back for more!
OAK-AY I WANT SOME!
The use of Oak can be genius and can create some jaw-droppingly amazing Champagnes. Here are a few of our favourites and how they go about it.
Voirin Jumel Cuvée 555
“Using small Oak barrels the wine oxidates for 6 months to offer more complexity and avoids a simple woody taste. The first fermentation also takes place inside the barrel so the yeast stays inside and on the barrel slats which allows the wine to better express its creamy taste from the terroir of Cramant.” Alice Voirin – Champagne Voirin Jumel
The wine is made in oak barrels, with reserve wines aged in a solera method for more than 15 years. The solera method is a perpetual reserve of vintage wines which is added too each year. In Caractères it is 80% reserve wines and 20% wines of the vintage. "We had the chance one year to choose wood from the forest that are located next to our vineyard. This helps us to continue in our mission of showing the taste of our terroir. From the grapes, to the aging process until the bottle, our terroirs are present." - Marianne Gamet - Champagne Gamet
"The AS cuvée is a gastronomic Champagne which brings together a selection of grapes with a double ageing in wood and in the bottle, giving it an inimitable bouquet. 50% chardonnay from 2009 ageing 20 months in oak barrels. 50% pinot noir from 2010 aging 8 months in oak barrels. The barrels are from champagne (tonnelerie champenoise 225 liters) and will have had 2 to 8 wines ageing in them before we use them for AS." Alexandre Salmon - Champagne Salmon