Do you ever repeatedly press the button to close the door in a lift, only for the door to close in its own good time? Do you drink instant coffee, even though filter coffee tastes so much better? We live in a fast-forward, sped-up world.
Take local Chenin Blanc. The WINE Magazine / ABSA Private Financial Services Chenin Blanc Challenge ended in a draw – De Trafford Keermont 2001 and the Kanu Wooded 2000 being joint winners and both having spent time in the barrel. Out of the 47 entries that went through to the final tasting, 57% were wooded.
Consider, also, the results of the Diners Club Winemaker of the Year Award 2001. 8 out of the top 10 wines were again wooded. Intriguingly, the winner – Kanu Chenin Blanc 2001 – did not receive any oak, but at first glance, it would seem that serious Chenin demands wood.
The argument for why wood should be used is relatively straightforward: in the effort to make great wine, quality grapes necessarily end up in oak, as a way of obtaining maximum structure and complexity. Obviously, care must be taken not to overpower the fruit, but wooding generally facilitates a fuller, richer wine.
In light of the above, it might appear counter-intuitive to suggest that treating Chenin Blanc with wood is actually a quick-fix solution. But this is precisely what some pundits argue. Francois Naud, L’Avenir winemaker and winner of the Chenin Blanc Challenge in 1998 for the L’Avenir 1997, is just one of those who questions the need for wood. He explained the chemistry of Chenin Blanc to me during this year’s Challenge lunch, and seeing as he’s a former pharmacist, I listened closely.
Any wine has a number of flavour compounds, esters, turpenes, pyrozenes and whatnot. The primary flavours of Chenin Blanc are derived from esters, which arise during fermentation. As the wine ages, these tend to diminish relative to the other compounds. Basically, the intensity of flavour decreases, as the spectrum of flavour broadens. If wooded, the wonderful primary fruit flavours of Chenin Blanc become even further dampened. Naud’s contention is that by applying wood, Chenin Blanc is often instantly gratifying, but actually the greatest attribute of the wine is being compromised.
In bearing out his point, Naud referred to the famed Vouvray wines of the Loire Valley, France. These wines, which are made without wood, not only keep well but will develop with bottle-age quite distinctive qualities of colour, bouquet and flavour. It is not unheard of for them to last up to fifty years.
So why is wooded Chenin Blanc proving so successful right at the moment? Well, it’s South Africa’s most widely planted grape by far, which presents us with the obligation to make something decent out of it, before the Australians achieve complete world domination. No wonder our winemakers are resorting to all the tricks of the trade to make wines that are as dramatic as possible. Will wooded prevail over unwooded? I suppose only time, and the machinations of the market will tell.