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The Secret of Hungarian Oak

Caroline Gilby MW

Sniffing damp wood – some interesting variations

About the Masterclass

Just as wine is endlessly complex, so is oak with its multiple roles of helping to polymerise tannins, stabilise colour and even add flavour to wine (though increasingly oak as a subtle “spice” rather than an obvious flavour is a wine industry trend). As well as the most common options of French and American oak, Hungarian oak is often found in top wineries around the world. András Kalydy, the managing director of Kádár Cooperage came to London in September to talk about the special features of Hungarian oak. 

The Science

András explained that a barrel has over 250 aroma compounds and these are affected by both species and forest. Pieces of different barrel staves were passed around the room and while the strong coconut and vanilla of American oak seemed to stand out, differences between French and Hungarian oak were not clear cut. András reckons that 90% of European barrels are a mixture of the two main oak species: Quercus robur and Quercus petraea, along with their widespread hybrids (American oak is a different species: Quercus alba). Of these, tight-grained Quercus petraea is the most desirable for high quality barrels, and this is part of the secret of Hungarian oak.

Kalydy explained that Hungary is very young geologically, with very thin soils, and its northern and north-eastern areas are typically continental in climate. Quercus petraea tends to dominate when soils are shallow and growing conditions tough. Northern Hungary has several forests that are almost unique in Europe, with 100% Quercus petraea, and this is where Kádár sources its timber.

The Wine Experiment

András brought several wines and oak, to demonstrate the complexity of oak choice and its role in both building structure and adding flavour.
For instance Ramey Sonoma Chardonnay in Kádár’s 228l Harmony barrels showed more freshness and creamy notes versus the same wine in French oak which had more obvious aroma and a broader palate.
In contrast, Heimann Kékfrankos gained more structure in 300l Kádár compared to 300l French oak.
A pair of GERE Csillag-volgy Cabernet Sauvignons in Kádár 300l barrels demonstrated the difference between levels of toasting. The wine with medium toast expressed more juicy, fresh fruit, while the wine from the medium-plus barrel showed more tannic structure, highlighting the effect of just one change. Samples  of Merlot from Gere’s Kopár vineyard, with 10 months in barrel, showed deepest colour and broadest texture in 300l Kádár medium with toasted heads; while Kádár medium-plus 300l offered more plum fruit and coffee overtones.
A 3rd sample in 300l medium-plus from a different Hungarian cooper gave the most linear structure with distinctive vanilla notes.
A final sample of Szepsy Urágya Furmint from a 300l Kadar Petraea medium  toast barrel highlighted how elegant and subtle Hungarian oak can be. 

The good news is that Hungary has strict laws on managing its forests sustainably so good Hungarian oak should be here to stay!

Read more on the subject here.