Of Champagne & Oak…

Oak barrels – surprisingly – used to be a must in champagne production not a long time ago. Oaky flavours not commonly associated with sparkling wine today must have dominated over the elegant flavours and so the introduction of stainless steel tanks in mid 20th century was a welcome development for the producers. Not only did the full control of the fermentation process allow for a taste that matched the effervescence as never before but made possible to even the quality of every single batch.

IWINETC 2015 Champagne 2015 4Some producers though have never abandoned the traditional way of treating base wine and this way of sorting things out is slowly gaining more and more attention in the world of viticulture. Today both the producers and consumers are far from reaching consent on which method should prevail. Admirers of modern champagne would never admit what their opponent point out – that its production had switched to the aforementioned tanks mainly due to financial and sanitary reasons.

IWINETC 2015 Champagne 3In fact oak has always been present in this way or another throughout the history of wine production. Some champagne houses conduct fermentation in barrels praising the effect of micro-oxygenation (possible thanks to the wooden permeable walls) which enriches the champagne’s structure as well as making it less prone to oxidation while others blend small dozes of oak-aged wine in their cuvées to add complexity to the final product. These two methods, both resulting in a desirable outcome, carry the risk of diminishing those valors that champagne lovers find so attractive in their favourite beverage.

IWINETC 2015 La ChampagneInstances of oak dominating over subtle wine flavours are increasing in numbers as the market for such champagnes grows. As of today it is common for producers to make their wines overtly oaky. For champagne which hardly has the necessary richness and body to benefit from prolonged exposure to wooden barrels it may be detrimental even if undoubtedly the fermentation or ageing in oak results in a smoother, richer wine ensuring that oak and fruit flavours are more balanced. The question is whether these features are welcome and expected in modern champagne. As more and more oaky bubbles hit the shelves lately the matter will surely be much discussed and hopefully resolved in the next decade.

Introducing La Champagne IWINETC 2015Which is better? Well come along to the International Wine Tourism Conference in La Chamagne and find out for yourself.

The 7th annual International Wine Tourism Conference, Exhibition and Workshop  2015 (IWINETC) will be held in the city of Reims. The Champagne-Marne Tourism Board, Comité Départemental du Tourisme de la Marne will be the premium sponsor for the event.

La Champagne to host iwinetc 2015


IWINETC is the leading global event for the wine and culinary tourism industry. IWINETC 2015 will provide, once again a unique opportunity to build essential contacts, discover a new destination and services key to the future of your business, expand your industry knowledge and maximise your return on time.

There are so many ways to participate at IWINETC 2015:

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  • Jason Lewis

    Anthony, while I normally agree with most of what you write, this time I find myself to disagree with you — or, perhaps, at least “flesh out” what I feel is a flawed premise on your part, namely that “Oaky flavours not commonly associated with sparkling wine today must have dominated over the elegant flavours and so the introduction of stainless steel tanks in mid 20th century was a welcome development for the producers.”

    First, much if not a substantial majority of the cooperage traditionally used in Champagne was not small oak (think of the 225L barrels commonly associated with Bordeaux/Cabernet or Burgundy/Pinot Noir), but rather of a much larger capacity. Indeed, two of the three photographs above show just that. Secondly, very little of the oak cooperage is new. It’s not uncommon for a Champagne house to use the same cooperage decade after decade. This adds *no* oak flavor to the wine whatsoever. The base wines are aged in wood, and certainly they are changed by that, but there is little to no oak flavor present¹ whatsoever.

    But secondly, since little-to-no oak *flavor* is found in the wine, your suggestion that “oak flavours” were somehow responsible for the introduction of stainless falls flat. Stainless was adopted virtually everywhere around the world for the advantages of temperature control — much easier and more reliable than the heat exchangers/”drapeaux” in use prior to that (and still in use today, in some places) — and for its cleanliness.

    It’s like everything new. New ways replace the old; (almost) everyone trumpets the advancement(s); and then, after a time, a handful of folks return to the old ways, claiming (perhaps correctly) that the old ways were better . . .

    Depending upon the “house style,” the use of old, neutral oak can definitely add a dimension to a Champagne, just as it can to a Burgundy, a Rhône, or a Rioja. It is but one more “tool” available to the winemaker in crafting the finest sparkling wine he or she can. I, for one, love the fact that there are producers who still employ oak AND producers who do not. It gives *me* a broader range of styles from which to choose when deciding which Champagne to pull from the cellar and open this evening . . .

    Cheers!
    _______________
    ¹ This would ultimately depend upon the percentage of new oak employed, and the duration of time the cuvée spent in the new(er) oak.

  • Thnaks Jason and apolgoies for the delay – we were in the La Champagne when you posted! Indeed you are correct about the large barrels used in times gone by and that those producers using oak nowadays are indeed using the 225l barrels which appear in the text above.