All CHAMPAGNES are sparkling wines but not all sparkling wines are Champagne!

Have you ever thought what could be in a glass of Champagne when you drinking it?

No? Well, it’s either the Chardonnay grape, the lesser known Pinot Meunière grape, and/or the Pinot Noir. And that is about it.

So what’s all the fuss about?

Mainly, due to the grapes being grown in the geographic area of “Champagne“.

The area itself is about 160 kms east of Paris. It encompasses the towns of Reims and Epernay; and the vineyards are in the Aube, Côte des Blancs, Côte de Sézanne, Montagne de Reims, and Vallée de la Marne. All around.

No other sparkling wine has the right to call itself Champagne or anything resembling that now. Up to about 15 years ago there were champagne wines coming from areas in Australia and California. Nowadays, so as not to confuse the consumer, ONLY wines grown in the Champagne region in France are allowed to put that name on their labels.

So why the huge difference in price?

Mainly, supply and demand. (It would be that wouldn’t it) …and tradition!

Other areas produce very, very good quality fizz, but just knowing you have a glass of Champagne in your hand makes it feel so luxurious! You know, the flavour that means you know exactly when it’s a glass of Champagne and when it’s not.

The Champagne area is relatively small. Champagne is their only wine production.

The interesting thing about Champagne is the link with history.

During the Middle Ages, the Champagne region was beset with wars, trouble and strife and was a crossroads for wars in other regions. Apparently, Napoleon wouldn’t go to war without going via Champagne to collect several cases of his favourite tipple!

It was not until the middle of the 17th century that Champagne was able to make itself well-known under the rule of Louis XIV when there was a large increase in personal wealth. The then Champagne houses tended to prefer catering for royalty and the nouveau riche by increasing the luxury and quality of their packaging and of course advertising!

Contrary to legend and popular belief, Dom Pérignon did not invent Champagne, but he did make important contributions to the production and quality of that wine. The oldest recorded sparkling wine is Blanquette de Limoux, which was apparently invented by Benedictine Monks near Carcassonne in 1531. They achieved this by bottling the wine before the initial fermentation had ended. Over a century later, the English scientist and physician Christopher Merret documented the addition of sugar to a finished wine to create a second fermentation, six years before Dom Pérignon set foot in the Abbey of Hautvillers and almost 40 years before it was claimed that the famed Benedictine monk invented Champagne. Merret presented a paper at the Royal Society, in which he detailed what is now called “méthode champenoise”, in 1662. Merret’s discoveries coincided also with English glass-makers’ technical developments that allowed bottles to be produced that could withstand the required internal pressures during secondary fermentation. French glass-makers at this time could not produce bottles of the required quality or strength. The internal pressure in a bottle of Champagne today is the same as that in the tyre of a double-decker bus!!!

In France the first sparkling Champagne was created accidentally; the pressure in the bottle led it to be called “the devil’s wine” (le vin du diable), as bottles exploded or corks popped. In 1844 Adolphe Jaquesson invented the muselet (muzzle) to prevent the corks from blowing out. Initial versions were difficult to apply and inconvenient to remove. Even when it was deliberately produced as a sparkling wine, Champagne was for a very long time made by the méthode rurale, where the wine was bottled before the only fermentation had finished. Champagne did not use the méthode champenoise until the 19th century, about 200 years after Christopher Merret documented the process. The 19th century saw an explosive growth in Champagne production, going from a regional production of 300,000 bottles a year in 1800 to 20 million bottles in 1850.

At Amanda’s Wines we stock some very exciting Crémants and Méthode Traditionnelles. All are made in the traditional way of making Champagne wines. Please take a look!

SUPERMARKETS do “CHEAP” very well!

The title says it all!

Supermarkets do do cheap extremely well.

To such a degree that no one, and I mean no one, can compete.

We all say we want better quality wines.

We all say we want to discover something else but, when push comes to shove, we always go back to buying in supermarkets!

-        Whether or not we know the producer on the label.

-        Whether or not we think we know the wine.

We don’t really care.

As long as the colour is right and the price is cheap!

AND… don’t kid yourself. Convenience has little to do with it.

Many off-license chains have set up in the same commercial centre as a large supermarket and they do not sell more just for that.

The supermarkets even started setting up separate shops next door to themselves in a commercial centre and their sales plummeted as well all thought they were selling more expensive wines. (or even the same wines dearer).

Have you asked yourself WHY we buy wine from supermarkets?

  • We don’t always like what they sell.
  • We don’t always think the flavour is what it should be.
  • We often end up with a massive hangover the next morning!

So, WHY?

Let me answer that in one short line.

Supermarkets are cheap.

In fact, they are so cheap that they sell some lines under their cost price.

Did you know that?

Yes, amazing but true.

Selling under cost to engage consumers to come into the store and BUY OTHER PRODUCTS  is called using a “loss leader”.

The average over-spend in a supermarket in the UK is £30.

£30!!!!

Just for a bottle of cheap wine! (or whatever…)

So they, the supermarkets, know that you are going to spend £30 minimum because you want to buy a bottle or two of wine.

They know that you will probably spend more.  They have lots of tricks like TFT offers and nice smells of baking bread. (Never go to a supermarket before a meal!)

They know you will kid yourself into liking the wine…

Because it is cheap!

Recently there has been a move by the supermarkets to add more quality wines into their stock.

Apparently, even the supermarkets are beginning to feel the pinch of the “loss leader” syndrome and think it is time to ask people to pay up for a better quality wine. The more expensive the wine, the larger the margin!

But, we the people do not really want to do that.

We do not want a more expensive bottle of wine from the supermarket.

That’s for people who really know what they are buying, isn’t it?

So the supermarkets are losing money on their cheap wines because they are still selling them as “loss leaders” and they are also losing money on their more expensive lines as – who in their right mind would buy a bottle of “quality” wine in a supermarket?

What a conundrum!

I really cannot wait to see how they get themselves out of this predicament.

If anyone has any ideas on this please email me, amanda@amandaswines.co.uk and put the title of this blog into the subject line.

VINTAGES and the Year of the Harvest!

A lot is said in the press about the vintage of wines.

Do they matter?

Well… actually, yes.

The vintage is the year the grapes are harvested.

The quality of the wine depends largely on the weather in the year leading up to the harvest.

A winemaker can do what he likes in a middling or bad year but the wine will never stand up for long.

Vines need:-

  • a very cold preceding winter.At least -8°C for 3 days in a row. This kills off the little bugs caught in the wood. Maximum -18°C…Colder weather totally kills the vines!
  •  a relatively rainy spring with lots of patches of sun, wind, even hail. At this time of the year nothing has grown yet so hail is OK. Hail won’t harm the buds as there aren’t any yet. Rain is needed to build up reserves in the soil for the warmer weather later on in the year.
  •  a warm, sunny early summer. Rain is OK but not too much.
  •  a very warm and dry-ish mid-summer.
  •  a very, very dry late summer
  •  a very, very, very dry September and October (these are the harvesting months in Europe).

When the whole year has had perfect weather AND the harvest went singingly along without upset, the vintage will be fabulous!

In fact it almost doesn’t really matter how the good the winemaker is it will probably still be a fabulous year. 

The very best recent years in which the weather followed the above were:

1990

2005

2009

Remember the weather conditions for these years?

Check the prices of wines for these years and you will see what a difference it all makes.

http://www.thewinecellarinsider.com/wine-topics/bordeaux-wine-buying-guide-tasting-notes-ratings/bordeaux-wine-vintage-chart/

Amanda’s Wines still has some of these wonderful vintages for sale.

Discovery Case Unoaked Red Wines

Touraine Gamay 2009

Touraine Cabernet Vieilles Vignes 2009

HOW TO PRESERVE WINE to the very last drop!

We all know what it is like to open a really nice bottle of wine for dinner and suddenly – at the end of dinner – there are a few glasses left in the bottle.

What to do?

Drink it?

Yes, but then we feel guilty. We are constantly being bamboozled at the moment that we all drink too much.

Do we care?

Actually… yes!

If it is going to make a difference, we prefer not to have to drink it and definitely NOT to throw it away!

The thing to do is put the cork (any cork will do, as long as it is airtight) back in the bottle and stand the bottle in the DOOR OF THE FRIDGE.

Red wine too!

With red wine, before you finish it off, remember to take the bottle out of the fridge at least half an hour beforehand so that it warms up to room temperature.

What if there is only 1 glass left?

Pour it into a glass, put a piece of “clingfilm” on it. Make sure it is totally airtight. Put it in the fridge.

The fridge will give you a day or two extra to drink it. Wouldn’t it have been a waste to throw it away?!

What about storing bottles before they are opened?

Always keep bottles lying down in a cool, dark place. Well away from fridges, freezers, hot water or central heating systems and pipes.

The back of the shoe cupboard is usually a very good place.

The better quality the wine, the longer it will last, both in the shoe cupboard as well as in the fridge once opened.

The wines at AmandasWines (our wines at a glance) are only of the best quality.

Remember to always buy quality wines. This does not mean they are the most famous or expensive wines.

Please have a look at our website. This link will take you straight to our full wine list.

CORKS, Synthetic corks and Screwcaps

Have you ever wondered about corks, synthetic corks, screwcaps and which is the best to buy? If so, read on!

It is not an easy question and the explanations are varied. So, I thought a little history would help to understand why we are having these current problems with corks which lead to much wine being lost through “cork taint” (Wikipedia explanation).

Firstly, it is generally accepted in the wine world that the best closures are still made from  high quality real cork. However, the price of high quality real cork is currently such that wines which retail for less than £12 per bottle make it financially unrealistic to use them. Wines which need to be laid down for many years will continue to use real, high quality, cork. Their ultimate price is high!

Quality cork at a reasonable price is currently unavailable and alternatives need to be found. The obvious alternative is the high quality synthetic cork.

High quality synthetic corks are similar to real corks in the short term. They look very similar. They are very tactile. They are expensive, but still cheaper than high quality real cork. However, it is becoming clear that they do not stand up well to being laid down for a long periods of time, i.e. 15 years or longer.

The other alternative is screwcaps. Screwcaps have a lot to be said for them once the consumer gets over the fact that you open a bottle of wine like a bottle of pop!

They are easy to use. You can screw the top back on again if the bottle is not finished, and for everyday wines, appear to be the best choice, especially for whites and rosés.

However, screwcaps do not age well. There is no movement of air within the bottle. This means that you can get a whiff of reduction. Reduction is a wine fault which comes about when the wine cannot breathe. It smells like rotten eggs. It is relatively easy to deal with if not too far gone. It just needs airing, or decanting. Leave for 1/2 hour or so and it will go – it disappears into thin air!

The reason behind all this hullabaloo dates back to just after WWII.

The production of cork oak trees comes mainly from a tiny area in the southern part of the Portuguese/Spanish border. It takes about 50 years for a cork oak to produce quality cork. The harvest takes place once every 9 years.

During the years after the war, the worldwide production of wine literally exploded. At first, the producers of cork oak were allowed to cut the bark from a lower area on the tree than was previously allowed before the war. A benchmark of between 30-50 cms above ground level was set under which the quality of the cork is considerably lower. It was allowed for a short period of time to enable the financially crippled producers to meet the demand.

However, wine production continued to increase. Cork producers were, therefore, allowed to cut the cork closer and closer to the base of the tree. The quality of cork suffered.

The Australians were actually the nation who decided that something had to be done about the dire quality of cork. They had spent an enormous amount of money on producing quality wines, only to find that the cork stopper was tainted.They basically invented the screwcap for wine. However, the studies are recent and it is still not clear how long the wine will keep under screwcap.

The French are very much more conservative. Many areas continue to use real cork closures. Many have gone over to high quality synthetic cork closures.

The wines at AmandasWines (our wines at a glance) are mainly under synthetic cork closures but also some are real cork.

Remember to always buy quality wines. This does not mean they are the most famous or expensive wines.

WINE AND YOUR HEALTH

My grandmother always used to say: « A little bit of what you fancy always does you good! »

Well, isn’t it nice to know that this goes for wine too?

There are more and more studies being carried out which prove that moderate wine consumption can actually benefit your health.

They have found that moderate wine drinkers are generally healthier, often live longer, and are less likely to suffer from heart disease, diabetes and dementia in old age.

Most of these studies have found that it is red wine that makes this difference.

Why? The answer is in the skins…

The Polyphenols – a natural compound called Resveratrol found in the skins and pips of grapes grown in slightly cooler areas, such as the Loire Valley, form when the plants are under attack from bacteria or fungi.

The plants build a resistance to these fungi and form thicker skins enclosing this wonderful Resveratrol at the same time.

Resveratrol has been found to contain properties pertaining to: anti-cancer, anti-inflammatory, blood-sugar-lowering, and other beneficial cardiovascular effects.

In America, this new find is being hailed as a new wonder drug.

In fact, you can buy it in the form of a pill…

A PILL??? Why take a pill when a nice glass of wine would do the trick?

(My grandmother also used to say, “There’s no accounting for taste!”)

Some scientists believe that this is the reason behind the French Paradox. The French eat as much fatty, rich foods as other countries but have a surprisingly low incidence of heart disease.

Now, not all red wines have the benefit of the high proportions of this compound. Some of the newer wines made for easy consumption without food do not have it, or if they do, it is in very low quantities. These wines are hardly more than fermented grape juice.

Choose traditionally made red wines with noticeable tannins. It is the tannins that give the wine high Resveratrol. Tannins are felt by a certain dryness on the middle to the back of the tongue.

(Same as a very strong cup of tea). They should be silky, not too harsh and not totally mask the flavour of the fruit.

To get a good build up of Resveratrol, the wine maker needs to have macerated the wine in the skins for as long as possible. As close as possible to a month’s maceration would be good. Otherwise anything from a week up is standard for good wines.

Choose wines which have been allowed to settle naturally. This creates a small but harmless deposit in the bottom of the bottle. Supermarket wines do not have this as they, the supermarkets, prefer to have chemicals added to diffuse this deposit

Most younger wines, wines up to 3 years, have loads of tannins.

They are consumed by the wine itself over time.

How much time?

That is like asking the length of a piece of string.

It depends main on the vintage, how the wine was raised, the grape variety, and that is not all…

I have several wines which are very strong in tannins including the Cabernet 2005, Mesland-Touraine 2005, Tradition 2004 and others which still have some very silky but noticeable tannins.

These wines’ tannins soften considerably with decanting, or just opening a good 2 hours before consumption. Always decant older wines or just open well in advance if you can.

All good wine merchants should know the answers to any questions you may have concerning this. So, don’t be afraid to ask.

I, too, am here to help you with your questions.

First published April 2011

Organic Wines, Natural wines and others…

Much is being said in recent times about the pros and cons; the taste, flavour and the wheres or whyfores of “sustainable farming”, “organic farming” and “natural wines”.

I am sure you are dying to understand the difference so let me help you.

 Sustainable Farming (Agriculture Raisonnée)

This is basically what all wine producers have done in France since the Middle Ages. “Putting back into the soil what you take out of it”.

If we look back to the end of the 20th century the growers in France, Italy and Spain raised their vines taking great care of the soil. Destroying the soil would have been tantamount to destroying their main working tool. No income, no food!

Can you imagine owning a car which you needed for business purposes and not looking after it? Eventually the car would get mechanical problems and then finally you would have to change it.

This was not an option for growers in Europe.

Tending the vines was always done manually and mainly still is. Pruning is still totally manual.

The use of horses in the vines only ended in the early 1970s when tractors took over.

Larger scale wine production as seen in the New World today started in France on a much, much smaller scale in the late 1980s.

Sustainable farming practices are used virtually across the board in France whether or not the grower pays an organisation to be able to say on the label that he uses sustainable farming.

Most small and medium sized wine growers would not bother to pay an organisation to tell them they can do what they have done for centuries. It would not make sense to them.

Sustainable Farming as defined by Wikipedia:

 “an integrated system of plant and animal production practices having a site-specific application that will last over the long term:

  • Satisfy human food and fibre needs
  • Make the most efficient use of non-renewable resources and on-farm resources and integrate, where appropriate, natural biological cycles and controls
  • Sustain the economic viability of farm operations
  • Enhance the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole.”

Organic Farming (Agriculture Biologique)

It is the farming of the vines, not the winemaking, which is organic. (There is much confusion on this point.) “Organic wines” currently do not exist in Europe today although there is a lobby to include wines as such under that label.

More and more French growers are going organic so that they can compete in world markets today.

It should be pointed out that, although the theory is quite commendable,

-        The production specifications are extremely hefty.

-        There are very, very active controls in the vines.

-        All the bodies involved with granting this sought-after accreditation charge a lot of money.

It still sounds very attractive, other than the fact that the wines are “fragile” (albeit expensive and guess who ends up paying!)

BUT… due to the fact that the use of synthetic pesticides, herbicides and fungicides is not allowed, the only treatment for vines under the Organic Farming charter is …“Copper Sulphite”.

            Copper, being a heavy metal, eventually kills the soil.

This is the main problem today for any wine grower who is changing from traditional farming methods to Organic.

 “Mildew” and “oidium” are types of fungi which produce a powdery mildew on the grapes. These diseases can wipe out a total harvest in a matter of days. In warm, wet summers the organic farmers use 5 times more copper sulphite than the traditional farmers!

They are, thank Heavens, actively looking for an alternative to Copper Sulphite.

 Natural Wines (Vins Naturs)

The name “Natural Wine” is extremely controversial and misleading as all wines are “natural”.

There appears to be more and more of a following of this type of wine, however.

This is basically where the vines and the wines are made with as little intervention as possible. They are left to their own devices and we should like them whether or not they taste good!

When they are young the wines are often cloudy (no filtration), still fermenting in the glass (fizzy but not in a nice way) and, or tasting of vinegar (contaminated vines or wine).

A well-known UK wine critic recently said “at best they taste like off cider”

When they get older there is no knowing which way the wines will go. So opening a bottle is always a surprise – Sometimes not so nice, sometimes very nice!

I very much understand the current “back to nature” leaning of these wine growers and their customers.

However, I am somewhat bemused that wine, a beverage which is no longer necessary to disinfect our food, is being raised in such a way with total disregard to the feel and taste.

Wine today is a pleasure and in some cases a luxury. Surely, we should not have to go through the process of putting on a nice face to front these wines.

In fact, probably the only way they can really succeed in making “natural wine” is by furnishing the cellar as if it were an antiseptic laboratory where no microbe could possibly contaminate the wine. Then we would get some palatable wines!

(A small number of American and French growers are currently putting this theory to the test.)

First published February 2011

ROSÉ WINES – How they are made?

Before we even start to explain how rosé wines are made, we need to dispel a myth:

ROSÉ WINES ARE NOT MADE BY MIXING RED AND WHITE WINES.

Rosé wines are made of red grape varieties.

Most quality red grape varieties have red skins and white flesh.

In the Loire Valley the most usual varietal used for rosé wine is Cabernet, followed closely by Gamay. There are some varietals which are used just for rosé wines such as Pineau d’Aunis and Grolleau.

The traditional way of making rosé wine in France came about with the need to “bleed” the red wines by removing the surplus juice just after bringing in the harvest. Say, about 24 hours after bringing in the harvest depending on the varietal and the year.

Once this surplus juice is removed the red wine remaining in the tank becomes more deeply coloured, stronger flavoured, and fuller-bodied.

The surplus juice is not deep enough in colour to be called a red wine so the name rosé wine became predominant.

There you have your rosé wine.

An alternative, modern way of making rosé is by putting the red grapes through the grape-press, just like white wines, and pressing them until there is just enough colour to put a blush on the wine.

Rosé wine made in this manner is called “gris” wine. The word “gris” in French means grey. This is not really considered to be “rosé” wine.

A second myth to be dispelled is that rosé wine is easy to make.

It is not.

It is probably the hardest wine to make of all.

It is extremely fragile.

Therefore, lots of things can go wrong.

As a general rule of thumb, rosé wines are generally not put through the malolactic fermentation. (The 2nd fermentation usually reserved for red wines).

However, rosé wine loves to catch the wine-maker out and do the malolactic fermentation all by itself before it can be stopped.

Another fragility is the wine turning the residual sugar into alcohol.

In many regions, Anjou being one, a small amount of residual sugar is left in the wine to make it softer on the palate. Rosé wines love turning this residual sugar into alcohol once the wines have been bottled and there is nothing you can do about it other than uncork all the bottles and wait until the wine settles down again.

In both cases, the wine-maker just sits it out.

However, the wines will never be top quality again. They will be “flat”.

When rosé wine is successfully made it is light on the palate and very easy to digest in hot climates. It is generally consumed relatively young.

For this reason, it is the main wine to accompany barbecues and grills, cold cuts, and salads. In fact, all summer dishes.

It goes down well in the autumn too with roast chestnuts.

First published September 2008

HOW TO TASTE WINE

Lots of people are on holidays in the Loire Valley and I would like a penny for every wine tasting and explanation as to how to taste and what to look for in wines that I have done over the years.

I would also like a penny for every person who has said “I don’t know anything about wine – but I know what I like!”

We all know more about our own personal taste in wines than we would like to let on.

So, I just wanted to pass on some tips.

The one, very basic tip you need to know, is: if you don’t like it, don’t drink it!

No matter what is written on the label or written up by critics. Your taste may not be the same as theirs.

Also, if you violently dislike a particular type of wine it is probably because you once had a bad experience and don’t want a replay. The stomach remembers bad experiences. Don’t force it!

Sooner or later a time will come when you are open-minded about trying that particular type of wine again. It is all in the mind, you know.

Most people have an idea as to the type of wine they like.

Red? White? or Rosé?

Heavy? Light?

Fruity? Oaky?

Whatever…

Remember that when you “savour” a wine, you do so with:

 ·       Your eyes

  • As soon as you see the bottle appear you know whether you are going to like the wine or not.
  • The bottle shape, colour, size and type – all set your taste buds up… this is before the wine has even been poured into the glass.

Once the wine has been poured, the depth, brilliance and clarity of colour also tell the subconscious whether or not you are going to like it.

 ·       Your nose

  • As soon as you put your nose into the glass your subconscious tells you whether or not you like the smell – and, therefore, the wine.

 ·       Your mouth

  • As soon as you have tasted the wine, your taste buds will be working overtime to try to work out the flavours and if you like the wine.

 Let me give you some more tips.

Once your eyes have sized up the bottle, colour and clarity of the wine, let it be poured slowly into the glass. Everything to do with wine should be done slowly!

Pick up the glass without moving the wine too much. Put your nose well into the glass and smell the wine.

Usually, one nostril is more sensitive to the smell of wine than the other.

Try both alternately until you find your best nostril. Some people need to open their mouth very slightly at this point.

Put the glass back on the table. Give it a very good swirl in the glass (preferably without spilling too much). Smell the wine again. Notice the difference and the way the fruit blossoms and comes to the forefront of your nose and subconscious taste buds.

Take a good mouthful of wine.

Roll it around the whole mouth.

If you are at a wine tasting you can spit into the spittoon provided.

If not, swallow it.

Let the remaining flavours of the wine permeate all around the mouth and up the back nasal tubes.

Ponder the flavours.

Take another good mouthful of the wine.

Roll it around the mouth again.

Try to suck in a little air to bring out more flavours in the wine.

(This is an acquired action but is basically much the same as whistling backwards. If you have never done it before, however, you will probably cough and splutter until you get used to it.)

Ponder the flavours of the wine again.

Search for the flavours of fruit.

If you cannot find any fruit flavours at all, there may be a problem.

Or, the bottle has not been opened for long enough and the wine is still “closed”. Wine should be aired (open the bottle) so that it can “breathe” for a minimum of 30 minutes before consumption. The older or heavier the wine the longer it needs to breathe. It is preferable to decant older wines.

One of the main problems over recent years has been over-oaking. The flavour of oak in a wine which has been aged in oak barrels should give a slight support to the flavour of the fruit. It should never mask the flavour of fruit!

Over-oaked wine tastes like the smell of a wet oak-wood cupboard.

Another flaw to look out for, but which is happening less and less due to screw-tops and synthetic corks, is corked wine (cork taint). This is due to a flaw in the cork if it is made of natural cork. It tastes like you imagine the flavour of cork, or dry wood. It totally kills any natural flavour of wine or fruit. You won’t find the flavour of fruit in a corked wine.

Once you have mastered these basic tasting skills you are well on your way to becoming a true amateur wine lover.

There is much more to learn about wine. However, these basic skills of wine tasting will get you well past the starting block.

First published August 2008

Oaked Wines or UNOAKED Wines – A potted history of why wines are oaked or not oaked

To understand the flavours of the various wines you taste, you have to understand the flavour of oak in wine and the reason oaking exists.

The first thing to know about wine is that oak barrels do not grow in vineyards and that the flavour is not intrinsic to the natural flavour of wine.

The flavour of oak is introduced by contact with barrels used for storage and/or transport made from that wood. Sometimes, actually, quite often, the oak flavours overpower the other wine flavours, in which case it is considered to be “overoaked”. Barrels made of new oak contribute a very strong flavour to wine. In fact, up until the 1980s no French wine grower worth his salt would ever, ever have put good wine into barrels made of new oak!

In red wines, the oak flavour components include “vanillin” or vanilla, and so-called “toasty”, “charred” or “roasted” or “caramelised” elements. In white wines, the flavour component is generally “buttery”. Vanillin and butter comes from the character of the hardwood. The three others derive from the “charring” of the barrel that occurs from the flaming of the interior of the barrel to be able to bend the staves into place.

The second thing to know is that the reason oak barrels came into existence was mainly for the transport of wines and the storage of wines.

To understand how this came about, I shall take you back in time to the Roman period when Julius Caesar invaded Gaul (as France was then known) in AD 52.

As the Roman army invaded deeper into Gaul and went more northwards towards the Benelux countries and onwards to England and Scotland (where they stopped) two things became apparent:

  1. That they needed large amounts of wine for the Roman army, and
  2. That there were not enough vineyards in Gaul. (There were only a few small vine regions planted by the Greeks around the Mediterranean basin.)

This was a bit of a worry as wine was particularly revered by the Romans for its digestive and medicinal qualities, its ability to disinfect food, as well as being very pleasant to drink! Pliny the Elder wrote a lot about wine. Unfortunately, the names of the varietals he mentioned are not known today.

The Romans set about importing wine from the best vineyards in the world, the slopes just outside Pompeii, and the Etruscan vineyards.

Initially, the transport was by boat. They loaded wine-filled amphorae onto boats and then onto donkeys on arrival. As they travelled into the hinterlands of Gaul, much of the wine was lost. This was mainly due to the amphorae falling off the donkeys and breaking; also due to the native Gaulois (pronounced gol-wah) who loved wine so much, they couldn’t get enough of it. They would hijack the caravans whenever they could.

By the end of the 2nd century the boats were constructed in such a way that they were like floating tanks. The inner tanks which held the wine were made of clay and sealed with molten lead. The wine was then transferred into large wooden containers of up to as much as 1200 litres or into animal skins or bladders and transported up river.

The Romans noticed that the Gaulois used barrels made of yew wood for the transport and storage of their ales. They started to use this for wines but it was not a success. In AD 70 Pliny denounced the “deadly effects of these strange recipients of yew wood made in Gaul”.

It is thought to be soon afterwards that the first oak barrels would have carried wine.

When Vesuvius erupted in AD 79 it wiped out all the vineyards surrounding Pompeii. It was from this date that the Legions planted vineyards in France in earnest, starting with the Rhone Valley, Aquitaine, the South-West, and Bordeaux regions, moving north towards the Loire Valley. There is evidence that the vineyards of Sancerre and some parts of Muscadet date from the Roman occupation. Also a stone grape-press dating back to the 2nd century was found just south of Tours indicating that the Touraine vineyards could date back to that period.

When Eleanor of Aquitaine became Queen of England in 1153, after having tasted the local English wines she set up the commerce and transport of her own favourite wines from the South West of France though the port of Bordeaux.

The containers used for this transport were, of course, oak barrels.

Later on in the Middle Ages the Dukes of Burgundy set up a transportation network of their wines to the Benelux countries, again, in oak barrels.

In the areas up and down the Loire Valley, the wine grower only had to take their wines 4 or 5 kilometres up the road to the local château or castle. He would transport his wines in oak barrels or vats, tip them out into storage tanks, and always brought the oak barrels back home again.  In the Touraine region, excavations beneath the Château of Chaumont found wine tanks dating back to the Middle Ages hewn into the Tufa rock face and lined with glass tiles.

Today, it is still traditional to age the wines in glass; we use bottles.

First published June 2008