Pairing white wine with wood is always a risky business. Not everyone likes oak and some of the most slender and delicate varietals often suffer under too much wood contact.
We know that oak can fit well with Chardonnay. They’ve been doing it in Burgundy for centuries and, in California, it is practically the norm. Chardonnay and wood work very well together if done well. Sometimes the wood might seem a little dominating, especially in some Australian wine – probably the reason that many people avoid it.
Still, there are thousands of blogs about Australian and Californian wine discussing the influence of oak on Chardonnay – even in Burgundy, hundreds of bloggers confront the fruit/wood balance every week. A new(ish) trend in Germany is the aging of wine in wooden barrels – most notably Barrique-aged Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc and even Riesling.
Alright, so storing and aging wine in wood isn’t new in German viticulture but seldom has it ever been allowed to dictate taste rather than simply carry it. Some of the Rheingau producers age a certain amount of their wine in wood and blend it back into their final cuvees – this has been happening for decades and not just in the Rheingau.
The spring to the limelight of white wine in wood was probably started by the Palatinate Dr. Deinhard winery when it released a series of wines under the new name of Von Winning.
Von Winning has a wide portfolio of both own-grown and bought-grape wines. The signature wood factor is part of the brand’s success. Whereas many critics believe that the reliance of wood in Riesling is a mistake…or indeed, in the most extreme circumstances, renders the wine undrinkable, a bright new approach to both Riesling and German white wine is always generally well received. Copycats and many other wineries who had been experimenting with Barrique and white grapes were finally able to market their new creations – why not?
Whilst Riesling and Barrique is still only a very niche marketplace and one pretty much dominated by Von Winning, the aging in wood of Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris and Chardonnay has become pretty widespread. In Franconia some people are even taking a look at Silvaner in wood – with mixed results. Even new-on-the-scene Sauvignon Blanc is ready for wood and Von Winning’s 500 Sauvignon Blanc is arguably its flagship for this new direction.
The problem many have with wood and Riesling, or indeed Pinot Blanc, is that it removes the sense of “German-ness” of the wine and I suppose I partially agree. Young Von Winning single-estate Rieslings often feel quite a lot like Chardonnay and Pinot Blanc from the Mosel sometimes feels like Russian-River-Valley Chardonnay on speed. With a bit of time though, these wines are, partially in thanks to the Barrique, really able to expose terroir. The Chardonnay-feel drops off after a few years in the bottle with the riper and sharper fruits of Riesling (together with a sense of acidity) taking over from the wood and its rounding-off of the Riesling in the younger years.
By now, you’ve probably realised that I’m talking about dry wine. Whereas sweet German wine usually does have a hint at wood involved, these wines suffice as the international ambassadors of German winemaking – it is unlikely that these will ever change.
Von Winning’s wines are still young (the first vintages aren’t even ten years old) so it’s difficult to see what will happen in the future. The creamy edge and vanilla notes of oak are interesting and will gradually fall into the background. The main question many people are asking is whether much of the Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Blanc will be left over to taste when that has happened.
Still, there are a number of highly recommended wines. Perhaps no longer typical of German wine and mistakable for foreign products, the new direction is an exiting one. Von Winning’s portfolio is attractive and its new-found definition-of-character might actually be positive for German wine as a whole. Making a product portfolio broader and more diverse never harms the market as a whole and the true fans of finely driven and classically-produced German wine will still have enough to chose from. Riesling in oak will always remain a niche market.
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This post is purely subjective and comprises of wines I've tried and have enjoyed. There exists no ranking, nor have any of the wineries involved any influence on the words written. Nevertheless, if you don't like something, please let me know and I'll get back to you.