The wood whose character is in demand the world over
Illustration: Laurel Molly
Wednesday 05 January 2022
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The steep peaks of the Zemplén Mountains overlooking Hungary’s north-eastern corner, by the Slovakian border, are rich in wildlife and medieval stone castles. At their foothills lies the Tokaj region, known for what has been described as the “king of wines and wine of kings” by no less than Louis XIV of France. Beyond Tokaji’s delicious lusciousness and the Zemplén Mountains’ majestic beauty, the region is also home to some of the world’s most sought-after oak.
Oak wood barrels are widely used to mature wine all over the world. They can lend pleasant “oaky” aromas of vanilla and winter spices when new, and generally help tame wine’s astringency by allowing for a slow yet steady oxygen intake.
American and French barrels – made with quercus alba oak, and quercus robur and petraea respectively – are often hailed as winemakers’ most popular choices. Hungarian oak rarely gets equivalent air time, but is in fact one of the country’s prime wine-related exports.
In the Zemplén Mountains, oak is almost entirely of the quercus petraea type. The cold climate and high average altitude mean that the trees grow slower, developing unusual, tightly-grained wood, particularly sought-after by coopers. Barrels made with tight-grained wood allow wines to mature gently and gradually, which is believed to create more elegant, longer, and silkier wines compared to barrels made with oak sourced from outside of Hungary.
“Quercus Robur [English Oak] is more tannic and has fewer aromatic compounds,” explains András Kalydy of Kádár Hungary, a cooperage that focuses on tight-grain quercus petraea from Zemplén.
“It also requires more nutrition and water, so the speed of the growth is higher and the grain is larger as a consequence. This doesn’t mean it’s bad, just that it may make simpler wines. Tightness translates into much more complex wines and extra-long finish, and can avoid premature oxidation.”
While Zemplén oak is the country’s prized wood, European Coopers believe that better results may be obtained by blending Hungarian oaks of different provenance.
“We find that the combinations of wood from two forests, Zemplén and Mecsek, can give good results in wine aging,” explains managing director Katalin Pintácsi, hinting at the southern Mecsek forests near the city of Pécs. Mecsek woods are populated by both quercus robur and petraea trees, which develop slightly looser grains due to the warmer climate and can lend sweeter notes to the wine.
“Hungarian oak was very popular in the 1800s. The French were using a lot of their own for military purposes, they ended up with a shortage and thought of buying more from Hungary,” says Trust Cooperage president James Molnar, an American-born whose Hungarian parents fled to the States during the 1956 revolution.
“Then the iron curtain came,” he continues. “Hungary still made wine, but with a focus on quantity rather than quality. ‘Is it a 225-litre barrel?’ Well, yeah, perhaps in a good day. Sometimes it was 198 litres, sometimes 240 litres...”
In 1992, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Molnar returned to his parents’ homeland and launched a Hungarian wood-trading business. As his venture grew to become a leading cooperage, he had the opportunity to experience Hungarian wood’s increasing popularity, both internationally and across the burgeoning local winemaking scene, where it’s championed today across a wide array of styles.
“People here use barrels for their reds, their Cabernet Francs... but they also use them for aromatic whites, because it adds texture,” says Molnar.
Tokaj-based winery, Dobogó, is one of the country’s leading Hungarian oak advocates. Managing director and winemaker Attila Domokos uses it in its 300-litre format across the entire portfolio, “because this is the size that can be easily moved by two people, and they are the best value for money”. Dobogó entry level dry Furmint is both fermented and matured in Hungarian casks. There, wood has a pure textural function, with little effect on the wine’s aromas as 90% of the barrels employed aren’t new, meaning they have little-to-no flavour left to pass on to the wine.
The result is a saline white whose bouquet is a genuine depiction of the Furmint variety. Hungarian oak’s aromatic potential has a greater impact on Domokos’ single vineyard expressions:
“In the case of our single-vineyard dry Furmints, we employ new and second-use barrels which offer a higher degree of creaminess and fullness to the wine, complemented by the spicy flavours. We have no experience of American oak, but in terms of comparing French oak to Hungarian oak, we have found that the Hungarian one is a better match for our native varieties in both flavour and aromas.”
While the use of local oak to mature dry whites is a relatively recent development, sweet Tokaji has long been aged in Hungarian oak: traditionally, a 136-litre cask called Gönci (pronounced “goon-cy”). The smaller size means a larger amount of wood surface in contact with the wine, which results in pronounced oak flavours. Yet, Domokos believes in a more modern approach to sweet winemaking, with larger barrels that have less of an impact on the final aromas. New casks are only used in poor vintages, when the grapes are relatively low in acidity and may be lacking in flavour: the wood can help improve the wine’s balance by transmitting some wood tannins, but also lend extra fruity and spicy notes.
“We prefer to ferment and age our sweet wines in used large barrels in a nice vintage where grapes are ripe and high in acids, as these are very full and fruity wines by themselves.”
Domokos’ forward-looking approach means he doesn’t let tradition stop him from innovating. In partnership with Kalydy at Kádár Hungary, he has developed a number of “special, extra high-quality barrels” made with quercus petraea wood from the Zemplén Mountains. These include the Larus cask, designed to help increase the wine’s length, tension, and vibrancy while at the same time limiting oak’s aromatic impact.
An international affair
“Outside of Hungary, Hungarian oak is in a lot of big brands,” says Molnar. “People don’t know it but any drinker is likely to have tried some wine aged in it.”
Hungarian oak barrels have a cult following in the States, particularly in California, but also in France and elsewhere in Europe. European Coopers itself was founded by three famed Italian wine families, the Antinori, the Gamba and the Mazzei to ensure a steady supply for their wineries, and is now co-owned with leading Burgundian master cooper Vincent Bouchard.
“We sell our barrels almost everywhere in the world. Italy is an important market for us, but also Australia, Chile, Israel, Turkey, and the USA,” says Pintácsi, arguing that in Italy, much Sangiovese is likely to be aged in Hungarian oak, and so is Cabernet Sauvignon in the USA and Shiraz in Australia.
“We’ve expanded to a lot of different countries over the past 10 years,” she continues, “and I feel the reputation of Hungarian barrels is increasing.”
Molnar ascribes Hungarian oak barrels’ global success to the fact that they aren’t tied to any specific use.
“They don’t fit a stereotype like Bordeaux barrels, which are normally employed for Bordeaux-style wines, or Burgundy barrels, which are often used for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Hungarian oak casks are perfect for anything from Riesling to Merlot. They’re the most versatile of all.”
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