Oak trials instigated to create the right balance

Name: Scott McIntosh

By Mark Osborne

French oak, anecdotally at least, is the preferred wood for many Australian winemakers but trials at one South Australian winery have thrust American oak back into fray. Step Road at Langhorne Creek, in conjunction with barrel producer Nadalie Australia, selected wood from three different American forests, and a blend, to discover what each oak contributed to the wine.

Step Road senior winemaker, Scott McIntosh, has a good understanding of what characteristics he wants from barrels but also wanted to explore further options.

'Basically the trial is being conducted to expand our understanding of American oak flavour profiles,' McIntosh said. 'We have tried three different cooperages for our American hogsheads and I have seen differences between the three. We have a good idea of what we like in our oak so I am trying to refine that even more by selecting barrels made from individual American forests. This has always happened with French oak but no one has really given it much importance when it comes to American.'

The wines involved in the research are a 2007 McLaren Vale Shiraz and a 2007
Langhorne Creek Shiraz. 'From this trial we can find out which forest best suits each parcel of wine,' McIntosh said.

The experiment includes oak from Pennsylvania, Minnesota and Virginia as well
as barrels made of a blend of American oak from the three forests, plus Missouri.

'All gave different flavours to the wines,' McIntosh said. 'Pennsylvania gave sweetness, Minnesota gave sweetness and savoury characters and Virginia just gave savoury character. So if we take a big tannic red and mature it in Pennsylvanian wood, we get a wine that is big, complex but has some sweetness to make it more drinkable.'

Step Road now has a better understanding of what oak blend to use. 'I would look at using more Pennsylvania,' McIntosh said.

But he added that they would not be restricted to one or two forests. 'We need to keep our options open and match barrels to particular parcels of fruit,' he said.

Nadalie Australia provided the barrels for Step Road, the two companies have had a working relationship for a few years. Nadalie sales manager for Australia and New Zealand, Eric Dechegne, alerted McIntosh to the fact Nadalie can get barrels from different areas in the United States. Nadalie has been able to do this for about five years but it hasn't become well known commercially until more recently.

After discussions with Nadalie about what Step Road was trying to achieve, Dechegne explained what characteristics the different forests could provide.

'And he was right,' McIntosh said. 'It's great that Eric had an understanding of what I wanted in a barrel, but even better, an understanding of what I wanted in the wine.'

Step Road also trialled different toasting levels on all barrels - a medium toast and a medium/plus toast - but McIntosh says until this stage (the barrels have been in oak for about six months) there is no discernable difference.

Dechegne believes the two-year maturation period that occurs in the US has a part to play with barrel quality. 'Nadalie mature barrels for anywhere between 30-36 months and they are stored in high rainfall areas, near the individual forests,' he said. 'I believe the extra rainfall provides a cleaner barrel because of the leaching that occurs.'

Barrels are made in the US and then shipped to Australia. Dechegne says Nadalie have a mill near each forest so production is controlled by the company. 'And this is important because we then know how the barrel is made from start to finish.'

Step Road will increase the use of specific forest barrels next vintage, especially Pennsylvanian.

Scott McIntosh's tasting notes

This article can be found in the November 2007 issue of the Grapegrower & Winemaker


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