February 2018 Issue of Wines & Vines
 
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Oak Is to a Cooper What Grapes Are to a Winemaker

 
by Jim Gordon
 
 

WALKING ALONG A STONE TERRACE near the top of one of the Tokaj region’s steep hillside vineyards, I noticed that new oak seedlings were springing up from the soil at the edges of the vine rows. I looked uphill from the Furmint and Hárslevel? vines and saw a stand of native Quercus petraea trees. In the previous year, when these oaks let go of their acorns, some of them rolled down the hill or were carried by wildlife to favorable spots next to the vines, where they could sprout.


       The seedlings were doomed to be hoed up or plowed under by a vineyard hand sometime soon, but they made the point to me that cooperage oak and wine grapes have shared the terroir in this part of Hungary for thousands of years. I had joined an accomplished group of young winemakers to see the oak forests that supply Hungarian coopers with tight-grain wood for their barrels and also spend time in the vineyards and cellars of this traditional wine-producing country that has been fighting its way back into the international wine arena for a generation.


Our guides were from the Kádár Hungary cooperage, and my comrades were Cameron Frey from Ramey Wine Cellars in Sonoma County, Aron Weinkauf of Spottswoode in Napa Valley, Andrew Windsor of Tinhorn Creek in British Columbia and Anthony Yount of Denner Vineyards in Paso Robles. We took an immersion course in oak forestry management, stave seasoning and barrel making, along with tasting plenty of Hungarian wines ranging from dry Furmint to sweet Tokaji to impressive red wines, too.


       I brilliantly observed that oak trees are to a cooper what grapes are to a winemaker. Further, if wines are made in the vineyard, then barrels are made in the forest. So, to be a good barrel buyer, it’s important to understand the origins of the oak you’re buying. I hope that my report, “What Makes Hungarian Barrels Unique” (page 34), will go at least some way toward improving your knowledge.
Senior editor Andrew Adams wrote the other major article on oak in this annual Barrel Issue. It focuses on French oak, specifically sharing the results of an unusally broad barrel trial done by Napa Valley winemaker Andy Schweiger (page 40).


       Two grapegrowing articles shed light on previously little-understood phenomena. Contributor Thomas Ulrich reports on what researchers have learned about the microbiology of grapes affected by Botrytis cinerea (page 66). And the team of Katja Hartl and Wilfried Schwab from the Technical University of Munich share “how smoke-derived volatiles accumulate in grapevines” (page 62).


       Finally, don’t miss an opinion piece that also touches on smoke taint but in the much broader context of climate change. Virginia Tech professor emeritus Bruce Zoecklein details the many ways that grapes are threatened by climate change, and then makes an impassioned and convincing appeal to all of us to get off the sidelines and into the fight to slow or stop it. But those are my words; read Zoecklein’s on page 30.


On behalf of all of us at Wines & Vines, I hope you find the issue helpful and interesting.

 
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