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French Oak Barrels The Secret To Shiraz Success

December 15, 2014

Kevin Glastonbury Feature

Travel

Winemaker Kevin “KG” Glastonbury has an unusual claim to fame.

A maker of fine Barossa reds, KG was a part of history in 2006, when he joined 70 wine luminaries from around the world to celebrate a 340-year-old French oak tree, planted in the age of the Sun King, Louis XIV.

Located in the heart of the Forest of Tronçais, the tree, named Morat, had a history linked to the French navy and a future with Australian wine.

In late 17th century France, Louis XIV and Minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert were determined to build and strengthen the French navy.

The Sun King’s predecessor, Louis XIII had secured key naval victories earlier in the century but a lack of financial support had slowed progress. Louis XIV was determined to amend this, while Colbert had a vision to ensure the French navy remained strong for hundreds of years.

In order to add to their fleet, Louis XIV commissioned Colbert to undertake a survey of the finest oak trees throughout France. The top trees were used to ensure the continuity of premium oak, with Colbert organising the planting of the Forest of Tronçais to guarantee the empire’s navy for generations to come.

As sail moved to steam and wood to metal, the forest lost its relevance as a source of masts for the King’s fleet, and the trees instead became victims of the industrial and French revolutions. However, a handful of trees survived the ages, regenerating in the 19th century.

By the mid-2000s the very oldest 40-metre mammoths were diagnosed as being susceptible to disease and unlikely to survive much longer. The solution was to give the trees a second life – as barrels for some of the world’s finest wine.

In traveling to France, KG secured a handful of the 60 Morat barrels, which he then used to age a 2010 Shiraz from Yalumba’s Steeple Vineyard, on the Barossa Valley floor.

The coup came after a 2009 Shiraz from the same vineyard was matured in 350-year-old Colbert oak from the same forest, felled a year prior.

“Oak should always act as a support for the fruit and the structure of the wine,” KG explains.

“In the 2009 Steeple Shiraz the oak doesn’t override the wine aromatically – it sits underneath the warm plum and berry fruits. Whilst on the palate it helps to direct the tightness and focus throughout.”

No stranger to travelling to Europe to research and source oak for the Yalumba Cooperage, and his premium red wines, KG plans to make his fifth trip overseas in 2015 and hopes to include Hungary in the itinerary.

“We currently use about 15 per cent Hungarian oak in our program,” he said. “Good Hungarian oak has very similar characteristics to French oak.

“A number of years ago the Hungarian oak forests weren’t being managed sustainably and the cooperages needed a lot of attention. As such, the quality produced from year to year was inconsistent.

“Now, with the forests being well managed and the cooperages improving their practices, demand is increasing as people realise the oak is on a par, quality wise, with French.”