Wine: Roll out the barrels

Oak has been used for centuries to age wine, but winemakers are experimenting with alternatives and there is even a shift to native timber, writes wine editor Jo Burzynska.

Woollaston Mahana Nelson Sauvignon Blanc 2013; The Four Legs Nelson Sauvignon Blanc 2013; Thomas's Treasure Nelson Dessert Riesling 2008. Photos / Supplied.

Ancient civilisations were united in the worship of the mighty oak, with followers of Zeus listening for his pronouncements in the rustling of its leaves. Winemakers hold it in similar reverence, many regarding it as the best material for making barrels. But there are more trees in the forest ...

Many of New Zealand's early wines were matured in native timber; winemakers today are experimenting with alternatives to oak and even contemplating a return to local wood.

Oak's popularity lies in its hard, supple, watertight nature, as well as its natural affinity with wine's flavours. However, barrels have been made from a variety of trees, which all impart different characters to the wine within them.

Acacia has traditionally been used in Europe, largely for white and dessert wines, and has recently been adopted by some winemakers in New Zealand.

"Compared even to older oak, the wines from acacia barrels are distinctively finer on the palate, with more vivid fruit and less softening than oak vessels impart," notes Shane Munn of Woollaston, who has been using acacia for reserve level whites. "There's the positive benefit of not imparting any toast, so freshness is retained and when new they impart a character that I can only describe as weirdly wild - floral with a slight resinous lift."

"The acacia barrel contributed lovely floral aromatics without any added astringency," notes Patrick Stowe of Rimu Grove, who has just started experimenting with the wood. "I will definitely be using acacia again."

Back in the early days of New Zealand's wine industry, winemakers had little option but to use the trees around them.

"The early winemakers used totara as it was local, neutral, available and affordable," explains Tony Soljan of Soljan's, one of a number of historic West Auckland wineries that used barrels made of the wood.

"I don't believe oak was even considered because they weren't concerned about the wood character, it was more a vessel to hold liquid."

"They made sherries and ports, which aged for a long time in the barrels, with the character not just from the timber but the richness from the old wine that had soaked in over the years," he adds. "We're fortunate in still having in use some big totara barrels that we age our Founders Port in, which are fantastic and the wines are even better, getting richness and character from the 70 years they've been in use."

"Totara has a tight grain much like oak that allows the wine to breathe, while not oxidising too quickly as would happen with a more open grain," observes Peter Fredatovich of Lincoln Wines, whose father made the winery's first totara barrels by hand in the 1930s.

"As we shifted into more varietal table wine in the mid-1980s and started producing the classic big oaked chardonnays of the day, we shifted more to American oak as it offered a bigger oak profile which was de rigueur," he recalls. "At the moment we experiment with different types of oak: Hungarian is showing promising results for some of our pinots, but we have no intention of going back to totara," he concludes.

At West Brook Winery, Anthony Ivicevich recounts a similar tale of when his grand-father started making wine there in the 1930s.

"It was ideal for the fortified wine being made at the time," he recounts. "However, when we compared totara and French oak barriques of similar age for ageing fortified wines over the same period, the oak barrels always showed better development and were used for our premium blends."

"I attempted to get a 200-litre barrel made from one of the old totara barrels to trial on some table wine," he tells me. "But the wood was too hard to bend as it was brittle, and even when left to soak in water for a couple of weeks it still cracked when trying to bend it, which is why I believe the old totara barrels had relatively straight sides and were of such a size."

One new-generation winemaker keen to explore local timber is Cambridge Road's Lance Redgwell, who's considering kahikatea, kauri and matai as possibilities, as well as a return to totara.

"As a fan of wines with a sense of place my logic disputes the role of European wood origins and questions the possibilities of our indigenous flora in its place," he says.

I'd be intrigued to see the results and welcome more diversity and local flavour in the barrels used for our wines in the future.


Woollaston Mahana Nelson Sauvignon Blanc 2013, $25
A really impressive local sauvignon that's been fermented with its skins in acacia. Notes of green herb, lime and mineral are wrapped in a beguiling chalky texture. Find at Fine Wine Delivery Company, Hamilton Wine Company and Farro Fresh.

The Four Legs Nelson Sauvignon Blanc 2013 $32
Notes of herb, florals and spice combine in a fragrant, complex style of sauvignon. On its taut palate there's apple and green fruits, zesty lime and a lingering mineral character. Available from

Thomas's Treasure Nelson Dessert Riesling 2008 $55
Blackenbrook imported a barrel from Slovenia for their flagship dessert wine, which they think gave the wine "a rich texture and interesting notes of manuka and pine nuts". It's certainly a delicious wine that's rich, sweet and unctuous with notes of poached peach, honey, spice and marmalade. Available

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