What does one do while on a long train from Varna to Skopje? Simple, drink wine. It is unfortunate that as a linguist, I do not speak either Bulgarian or Macedonian. Elena is often quick to remind me that since I speak Ukrainian, it would not be a huge leap to learn the lingua franca of Macedonia.
Settling back with a glass of Mavrud, I sensed something quite distinctive. Over the years I have consumed more than my share of this delectable wine, and Bulgarian winemakers claim the secret is in the oak barrels. What is it that is so distinctive about Bulgarian oak?
However, before we answer the question of Bulgarian oak, it is imperative we gain a better understanding of the importance of oak in winemaking. Throughout most of antiquity most wines were fermented in large amphorae jars. Legend has it that when Julius Caesar conquered Gaul, he found that the Celts were aging their wines in oak barrels. Not only was it a more practical way to transport wine in this fashion, the Romans found the softer tannins, distinctive aromas and flavors quite suitable to their palates. Like most legends, there is probably more than a modicum of truth to the tale. Regardless of the accuracy, I enjoy the story.
The best wines in the world have been oak-aged in some way. Oak is a crucial, yet often overlooked component in making wine. Everything from type, size, age, grain, and treatment of an oak barrel, greatly affects the finished wine.
What exactly does aging wine in oak add or change the characteristics of the wine? To begin with, oak naturally adds aromas of coconut. By heating or burning oak, different aromas can be achieved. These include, vanilla, notes of spice and clove, caramel and sweet aromas, and finally, charred and smoky aromas. It is important to note that oak barrels are a renewable resource. After the first 2-3 uses, an oak barrel stops flavoring wine and is considered neutral. They are, however, a great way to store wine as they easily last up to 100 years.
First up, Eastern European Oak. Given the high quality of oak wood found in the Balkans, Eastern European barrels have had an esteemed history. During the 18th and 19th centuries when the Balkans were under the rule of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Balkan oak barrels were known as “Bosnian Hand Split.” This was because coopers of that era combined oak from two different regions of the Balkans, essentially north and south. The rationale was that they could produce a superior barrel, and save on the cost.
Bulgarian, or Balkan Oak, as it is also known, ranks among the finest in the world. In Europe, two types of oak are popular in winemaking. Coopers prefer either fine-grained, sessile oak or wide-grained, robur oak, which is most commonly found in Russia. Typically, sessile is viewed as superior because of its tight grain. This type of oak also imparts a softer taste into the wine with a higher level of olfactory characteristics. The tannins of Bulgarian oak are soft and deep and very similar to those found in French oak. Since sessile oak trees grow at a much slower rate, this contributes to the flavor characteristics of the wood. Another plus is that sessile oak trees dot the Bulgarian landscape. In turn, companies producing wine barrels, are able to keep prices down.
Anyone who knows my palate is aware of my passion for Georgian wine. What about the robur oak that grows throughout the Caucasus Mountains? Barrels primarily used in Georgian winemaking create moderate tannin and softer aromatics. This type of oak is perfect for those winemakers who desire to produce fresh and mineral wines with good structure. In contrast, the robur oak found in Russia works well to create more elegant and sweet aromas. Russian robur oak has recently begun to find a rising interest with some Spanish winemakers.
In Central Europe, Croatia and Hungary are held in high esteem for their production of excellent oak barrels. The most prestigious of these areas is the northeastern Croatian region of Slavonia. The oak barrels produced in this area are highly regarded by the international wine community. This quality oak has found particular favor with the Italian winemakers of Piedmont. This tradition dates back to the ancient Romans who highly prized the oak of this region, which they knew as Pannonia. What is it that has made the oak of Slavonia so long desired? The wood is known for its tightness, and the local coopers’ preference for larger barrels. This stems from their belief that larger barrels are much better to impart more subtle flavors and softer tannins.
Hungarian oak, by contrast, is popular with those winemakers who prefer full-bodied varieties such as Malbec and Petit Verdot. Their belief is that the wines are strong enough to hold up to the richer nutty flavors the wood imparts on the finished wine. In fact, many winemakers consider Hungarian oak remarkably similar to French oak, yet at a fraction of the cost. A fact that has been brushed aside in France is that up until the early 20th century, Hungarian oak had found great favor with French winemakers.
In the United States there are many types of oak trees, with white oak prevailing with cooperages. White oak abounds throughout the eastern states, Virginia, Kentucky, Missouri, and Oregon. Most American cooperages are in fact producing barrels for the Bourbon and Scotch industry. Though there is more than adequate demand for American Oak from winemakers, it pales in comparison with the demand by whiskey distillers.
Winemakers who prefer to work with American oak agree that it adds considerable amounts of flavor and higher tannin to the wine. Another big plus is that American oak adds a degree of ruggedness to the clean fruit forward wines that are primarily produced in California. This school of thought is that such traits are desirable for aging powerful and robust wines. Lastly, American Oak tends to have looser grain widths than the oaks of France and the rest of Europe. This results in more vibrant aromas of vanilla and oak. The mouth feel is also more on the aggressive side.
As with the USA, the forests of France flourish with a variety of oak, including White Oak. Many winemakers consider the oak that is indigenous to France to be superior due to its finer grains and consistent wood. The oak that grows in France is reputed to be more suitable to soak up flavors and characteristics while aging. In part, this is because French oak contributes more tannins and flavor components, and less “oaky” flavor and aroma than American oak.
For me, oak is of course a highly contributive factor, however, other considerations also come into play. Let’s not rule out grape varietal, the winemaker, and of course, terroir. In the end, it all boils down to palate.
On a different note, many winemakers have a penchant for aging wines in other woods such as acacia and cherry … “But that my friends is another story … “