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Barriques and botti: the taste of wood


Marc Millon

this article was first published in Italy Magazine

Italy has in recent decades witnessed a considerable renaissance in its wine industry. One of the most significant developments has been the widescale use — and the market acceptance —of new French oak barrique especially for the ageing of serious red wines, as well as for the fermentation and/or ageing of quality whites. New French oak can lend sleek nuances, aromas, flavours and wood tones that add a complexity and character to a wine. Prior to the 70s and 80s, French oak barrels hardly featured at all in the Italian wine scene; today they are everywhere and all the rage.

The term barrique — the French word is used as no exact Italian alternative exists — indicates a small new oak cask containing 225 litres. This is in contrast to the traditional Italian botte, a large wooden cask containing anything from 10hl (1000 litres) to 150hl (15,000 litres) or more. ‘Un vino barricato’ indicates a wine that has been fermented or aged in barrique. Depending on your point of view, such a wine might represent the pinnacle of Italian vinous glory, a true designer work of art (with a breathtaking price tag to match); or it may suggest an international style that has lost its Italian tipicità (tipicity, but the word is difficult to translate fully – it implies a totality, the character of the grapes, land, people and culture).

Wines in antiquity
The barrel has not always been used in Italian winemaking. In antiquity, the Etruscans used stone vessels in which to ferment wine as well as terracotta urns for storage. The Romans fermented wine in earthernware dolia, and transported it by ship in terracotta amphorae. It was only in about 3rd century AD when cheaper wines began to be imported into Italy and Rome from imperial settlements in Gaul that the wooden barrel began to replace the more fragile amphora. The barrel was both sturdy, relatively leak-proof, and easy to transport (it could be rolled, even when full). The fact that it had an effect on the development and evolution of the wine itself was purely incidental.

Though today we most usually consider only oak as a suitable material for wine barrels, historically the type of wood utilised was very much dependent on what was available locally. In France, great forests particularly in the Massif Central provided — and continue to provide — a ready supply of high quality, finely grained oak. Elsewhere, woods such as cherry, acacia, ash, chestnut and poplar were — and to a lesser degree still are — used.

The barrique
It was only as recently as the late 1960s and early 70s that the use of new French oak barriques was introduced into Italy. Marchese Piero Antinori was inspired by the immediate success and immense potential of Sassicaia, a pure Cabernet produced from grapes grown by his uncle Marchese Incisa della Rocchetta in vineyards around Bolgheri. He decided to create a new type of Italian wine from one of his greatest single vineyards, Tignanello, located in the heart of the Chianti Classico. Produced from Sangiovese with just a little bit of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, the wine was furthermore aged in new French oak barriques instead of traditional large botte. New French oak added complexity, rounder, softer tannins, and the aromas and flavours of spice, toast and vanilla that have become the hallmark of such barrique-aged wines.

Yet because the wine was made outside of the discipline of Chianti Classico, it was only entitled to vino da tavola status. What a marketing coup! This lowly ‘table wine,’ Tignanello, was an immediate sensation and became a model and inspiration for other such super-vini da tavola elsewhere. Soon any Tuscan producers aspiring for quality accolades felt the need to bring new barriques into the cantina in an attempt to produce similar new wave wines. The use of barriques spread to other regions up and down the country. Early experiments were sometimes disappointing, expensive mistakes; even today there are still wines being made that are simply over-oaked and offer very little else but the flavour of new wood.

Wine producers, however, have now mainly realised that it is essential to utilise the barrique only for wines with an adequate structure that can support and not be overwhelmed by the flavours and aromas of new oak. They’ve also realised that it is necessary to use the barrique judiciously and with precise skill and care, controlling time in new wood, sometimes ageing in a mix of new and nearly new wood as well as in a mis of barriques and botti. Such factors as choice of wood (from the forests of the Allier, Tronçais, Vosges, or Limousin, for example), as well as degree of toasting of the barrel (la tostatura) are factors that can also make profound differences to a finished wine.

Botti — size matters!
Many producers, though, have eschewed the use of barrique altogether, preferring instead to produce wines that remain faithful to their traditional Italian roots by ageing in large botti.

Such botti, traditionally made with oak from the forests of Slavonia (an historic region now located in Croatia) may last for decades and longer, and the old wood, sometimes encrusted with tartrates and sediment within the barrels, may not lend any obvious flavours to the finished wine. The superficial area of wine in contact with wood in such large barrels is much less than in 225 litre barriques. However, traditionalists say that the character and tipicità of Italian wine can for many wines be more purely revealed through ageing in botti without the distraction of the flavours of new oak. Wine should be an expression of the grapes, not of wood, they argue. And furthermore, they consider that the fashion for using new French oak, like the tendency to plant international grape varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay at the expense of indigenous grapes, is a process that inevitably homogenises Italian wines and makes them taste more and more like wines from anywhere else.

The remembrance of things past
Italy is nothing if not a country of differing opinions, not least when it comes to such important matters as wine. Families have seriously divided over this thorny issue. What is certain is that in Italy the barrique is here to stay, come what may. Undoubtedly some of the country’s most exciting and prestigious wines benefit and gain character from spending time in new French oak. At the same time, traditionalists will continue to utilise the botte to make wines that safeguard above all their Italian tradition and personality, their tipicità.

And, Italy being Italy, there are even moves to return to tastes of long, long ago: at the Salone del Gusto last year, I had the chance to sample a remarkable Ribolla Gialla wine made by Josko Gravner in Friuli, fermented and aged not in botte, not in barrique, but in terracotta amphora…

Copyright © Marc Millon 2005


Copyright Marc Millon 2005-2009 All rights reserved
Images copyright Kim Millon 2005-2009 All rights reserved

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