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Oak Free Wines

Two of many great wines I drank on my recent trip to Europe were a Chablis and a Santorini Assyrtiko. Nothing too remarkable about that, except both were unoaked.

Only in recent years have South African winemakers toned down on oak, new oak in particular, with some eschewing oak entirely for certain wines;  cement eggs, clay fermentation vessels and stainless steel have taken its place.

These unoaked wines are frequently complemented by an oaked version in the range, the former now being treated as a quality wine in its own right, rather than a simple, entry level offering.

Three producers tackling three different varieties – Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay and Pinotage – in both wooded and unwooded versions, explain their approach to unoaked wines.

Raats Original Chenin Blanc is an excellent example of the quality achievable without oak; Bruwer Raats 2016 is a Platter five star wine. His cousin and co-winemaker, Gavin Bruwer Slabbert, gives the inside story.

Fruit for this wine comes from both granite and sandstone-based vineyards, the former provides citrus flavours, mineral core and freshness, the latter more stone fruit, florals plus structure and depth. Important harvesting decisions rest on flavours and balance between sweetness and acid. The destemmed berries are pressed and naturally settled, followed by a cool, natural fermentation in stainless steel; lees contact is dependent on vintage. Slabbert sums up their goals as: ‘Fresh flavours, vibrancy and youthful drinkability but also structure and depth to allow the wine to age well.’

South Africa’s Chardonnay vineyards are now reaching a maturity which allows for more characterful unoaked examples. Nico Grobler’s Eikendal Unwooded Janina Chardonnay is as well regarded as his oaked version.

‘There has to be a high level of precision in unwooded wines, as we don’t have the natural minerality of Chablis,’ Grobler believes. To achieve this, he sources fruit from five clones on three farms in both Elgin and Stellenbosch. Maintaining acidity at harvest and chilling the grapes before whole bunch pressing gives him the necessary pure juice. Specific clones are then assigned to different fermentation vessels: stainless steel to capture freshness and acidity; cement eggs and an egg-shaped polyethylene tank for structure. All undergo spontaneous fermentation, ‘which builds enormous character with lower alcohol’ maintains Grobler.

Turning from whites to reds, Pinotage appears to be popular as an unoaked wine, as confirmed by L’Avenir’s Edo Heyns and winemaker Dirk Coetzee. ‘Pinotage is generally perceived as big and bold; our Far and Near highlights the variety’s fruit purity and has been met very positively,’ says Heyns.

Coetzee observes vineyard age is particularly important; ‘Nothing younger than 15 years for the fruit purity and concentration essential for unwooded wines.’ Differences from the oaked version include harvesting at a lower sugar level, using both natural and cultured yeast on the whole berries and fermenting at lower temperatures for more red fruit. Both gentle pump overs and removing juice from skins before the wine is dry  avoid excessive extraction. Such methods achieve Coetzee’s goal of a lighter dry red, which he maintains ‘can be chilled and enjoyed with a braai during our hot summer days.’

Reds more usually being oaked, I wondered whether there are varieties other than Pinotage these three winemakers consider can be successfully made without wood. Slabbert mentions drinking excellent old vine Grenache examples; ‘reds requiring delicate handling are well suited to being unoaked.’ Coetzee suggests Cinsault and Pinot Noir, ‘as the parents of Pinotage’; Grobler also agrees with Pinot Noir.

Innovation with technical skill is the forte of South Africa’s young winemakers; no doubt there will be more quality, oak-free wines in the pipeline.

- Angela Lloyd