It is often said that oak is like a spice in the hand of a winemaker. Like that of a chef, a winemaker’s hand may be either too light or too heavy, or perhaps just right. Anton Pretorius spoke to head winemaker at Distell, Andrea Freeborough about the use of wood in wine.
During the 90s, the role of the barrel shifted from being a vessel to that of a spice jar. Californian and Australian wines were so strongly oaked that the fruit character of the wine was totally compromised. Some South African winemakers tended in the same direction, but not to the extent as their Californian and Australian counterparts.
Since then, consumers have come to prefer more fruit in their wine and winemakers exercise more caution when using the oak spice jar. Oak influences different wines in many different ways and the winemaker’s job of selecting the correct barrel and then judging the correct application, is an art in itself.
Cellar master at Nederburg since 2015, Andrea Freeborough was recently appointed as head winemaker for Distell where she oversees the production of South Africa’s largest wine portfolio.
With her impressive qualifications, excellent sensorial instinct and close to two decades of successful winemaking experience, Andrea has certainly proven her ability to lead top-performing teams, to innovate and experiment and to simultaneously create speciality wines.
Andrea says barrel maturation is a vital process in the journey from grape to glass, and one which requires patience.
Q: When it comes to Distell’s estate range of wines, what is your philosophy around the use of wood in wine?
AF: We have access to some phenomenal fruit therefore the fruit always needs to be the primary focus for all our wines. Wood should add an extra dimension, but it must never be the dominant feature. Balance is the key.
Q: How have wood barrels changed over the past 20 years in terms of capacity or type of wood?
AF: I have definitely seen a trend towards the larger formats. The 500 litre barrel and the Foudre (large wooden vat that can contain up to 300 hectolitres and more) are now more commonly seen in our wineries compared to a few years ago. There has also been more experimentation with Eastern European oak and more recently, the use of Acacia wood barrels is now gaining traction among winemakers.
Q: What is your preferred choice of wood? Which woods work well for which different wines?
AF: I use any wood that respects the fruit. Obviously, different styles of wine influence the choice of oak to be used. Eastern European oak usually adds a lovely spicy element which I really enjoy on Rhône varieties, while American oak is known for its sweetness and gentle vanilla nuances, which can be pleasing for some varieties including Shiraz and Pinotage.
Q: How many times can a barrel be used today before it is changed?
AF: It all depends on the producer. We usually use our barrels four times before sending it to our spirits department for brandy maturation purposes.
Q: When we talk about changes in the contact ratio between wood and wine, what was a barrel supposed to add 20 years ago, and what do winemakers look for today?
AF: Firstly, we look for balance. After that, we look for other elements such as aroma and elegance. There has been a big move away from overly-oaked wines to wines in which the wood respects the fruit rather than to mask it.
Q: How have wine objectives changed according to the different markets? Can the same wine have different approaches to wood depending on the expected place of consumption?
AF: Wood is chosen with the end style in mind. Since we aim for consistency of style across all our vintages, our blends are homogenous for a specific vintage and all markets receive the same blend. We will however monitor styles with our agents in the largest markets and make small tweaks to ensure that we meet those consumer’s expectations without alienating other loyal consumers.
Q: If you were to do a vertical tasting of your iconic wines, what are the main difference of contact ratio with the wood?
AF: A number of trials have been done over the years with different barrels from different cooperages on specific top blocks. Barrel purchases are now being based a lot more on actual cellar results rather than the results of other wineries. Again, balance and respect for the primary fruit are the drivers behind current purchases. In terms of ratios, this may mean the use of slightly larger vessels are different toasting levels in some instances.
Q: Is it conceivable for your iconic wines to be made without the contribution of wood?
AF: Many years ago, there was very little wood being used. Today, however, with the huge advancement in wood technology, oak remains an important element of our top wines.
Q: Has the consumer’s attitude towards wines aged in barrels changes?
AF: In the past, there was a big trend towards a better balance in wines. When I first entered the industry, people were drinking wines which were heavily oaked. These days, consumers are looking for wine where the oak is the secondary rather than the dominant element. Along with the evolution of technology in cooperage practices and other worldwide trends, I think people are leaning more towards slightly less oaked wines. But having said that, the wine needs to be balanced. Consumers are becoming more educated and aware of the role oak plays in wine.
Q: Wood is perceived as a value in wine, which translates into price too, or is this not the case?
AF: Yes, all our wood is imported, so barrels remain one of our largest capital expenditure items each year. Unfortunately, this cost is then transferred to the product.
Q: How do you see and evaluate the ‘no-oak’ phenomenon?
AF: I haven’t really seen much of it, but I know there’s been a lot of talk about it. While I was cellar master at Nederburg, we looked into producing a Cabernet Sauvignon with no oak (the way Nederburg’s legendary winemaker Günter Brözel did it back in the day). It wasn’t no-oak per say, but it was wine produced in old wooden vats where the texture of the wood was limited. However, at this stage, it’s not something Distell is actively pursuing. But that’s not to say it won’t become more feasible in the future.
Q: During your career, what’s the most important lesson you’ve learnt about the use of wood in wine?
AF: Less is more…