A taste of home

Monday, 28 June, 2004
Nederburg News Service
Pursuing the idea of Romanian oak…

It was initially the taste of home that led cellarmaster Razvan Macici to pursue the idea of Romanian oak to age Nederburg wines. But then for reasons of taste, cost and academic progress, it seemed to make increasing sense.

'Two years ago I had returned to my native Romania whose wine industry is thought to date back to the 7th century BC. I was visiting a small cooperage in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains in Muntenia, or Vallachia, as it was originally known. I tasted some wine aged in vats made by the cooperage, called Vallach and immediately I was struck by the subtlety of the wood flavours. Instead of assertively sweet, vanilla tones, the character was delicately earthy, nutty - almost organic. It took me back to my university and early winemaking days in Romania.'

Macici obtained his masters in oenology from the University of Iasi, Romania in 1992, before working as a winemaker in Romania. After he gained experience by working in Western Europe, he immigrated to South Africa in 1997 and was appointed head of Nederburg's winemaking team in 2001.

'Even after the fall of Communism in 1989, economic recovery was slow. No-one could afford to use French oak yet. In fact, when I was living in Romania, my only exposure to French oak was from the imported barrels used by the university for teaching purposes.

'The continental climate of Eastern Europe with warm and dry summers followed by extremely cold winters means the wood grows slowly, resulting in a very tight grain. And the tighter the grain, the slower the release of wood tannins and the milder its impact.'

'Wood, whatever its provenance, also gives red wine a deeper, more stable colour and softer, more integrated tannins compared with wine aged in stainless steel tanks. So the barrel is more than a container. It becomes an instrument in the hands of the winemaker to produce better quality wines.'

'It's a strange thing. So many assume French oak, used so widely, gives a better end product. But, interestingly, Eastern European oak was originally used to make Bordeaux wines, for example, and was among the most admired for its quality. Then, during the Napoleonic wars, supply was interrupted and French oak was substituted, ultimately gaining far greater currency.'

'There was even less reason to consider Eastern European oak with the advent of Communism, which effectively cut off Romania, Hungary and many other suppliers of wood from the West for more than 50 years.

'After World War II, commercial forestry virtually came to a halt. Trees could grow for far longer and even now, if you walk in the forests, you will see just how enormous many have become. Fantastically tall and with enormous boles.

'So I said to the Vallach coopers: 'Why don't you export your barrels?' And they shrugged: 'Who would buy them?' But I challenged them: 'If you make some I can use at Nederburg and they turn out well, we'll buy from you'.

Vallach brought in a master cooper from France to assist and sent two barrels to South Africa which Macici tested. He was delighted by the results. 'This wood respects the fruit flavours of the wine, lending a forest character rather than overt oak, and imparts softer tannins.'

So it wasn't long before Nederburg acquired more barrels from Romania, as well as from Hungary.

Macici says the fact that Antinori Chiantis are aged mostly in Hungarian and Slovenian oak inspired him to try Eastern European oak in his 2001 maiden vintage Italian blend of Sangiovese, Barbera and Nebbiolo. Then he used 20% Hungarian oak but for the 2003 vintage, now in barrel, he used 60% Eastern European oak from a variety of coopers and is following the same regime for the 2004 blend.

He is also currently experimenting with four toastings of Romanian oak - light, medium, medium-plus and heavily-toasted across Cabernet Sauvignon, and Shiraz, as well as Chardonnay, comparing these with the same three varietals aged in a variety of French Hungarian and American oak, also toasted across the spectrum. He plans to keep all the wine, produced from the 2004 vintage, in oak for 24 months, tasting every three months, charting the results, which he believes will give him enormous insights into wood management at Nederburg.

'Already I see in the Shiraz maturing in both Eastern European oaks, spicy, peppery flavours, more in the style of a Rhône Syrah than a New World wine.' But he wants to wait a little longer before making any assumptions.

'Nederburg has made an extensive investment in wood. We buy around 1 600 new barrels a year and we obviously want to optimise our investment in terms of price and quality, so if it transpires that Eastern European oak produces the results we are looking for, we'll increase what we buy from the region. Currently the majority of the barrels we acquire annually are from France.'

It just so happens that the subject of Macici's PhD thesis is the influence of Romanian oak on wine.