BEHIND THE BOTTLE: Comtesse Thérèse 2005


Hungarian Oak Merlot: A wine with a story partly about wood.

There are wines whose labels advertise the grapes inside the bottle. We all know them: merlot, cabernet, chardonnay. And there are wines that advertise where the grapes are from: Bordeaux, Burgundy, Neusiedlersee. But it’s not very often, rare in fact, that labels tell where the grapes spent their time while being made into wine.

Not too long ago, labels trumpeted that oak barrels were involved, producing the rich, creamy, “oaky” chardonnay from “barrel-fermented” grapes. California adopted this method with gusto, and soon there was a backlash. Across the world in New Zealand, producers started bottling “unoaked” chardonnay, and putting it prominently on the label.

Wine was marketed with one loving eye cast on barrel-fermented chardonnay, and the other on chardonnay fermented and stored entirely in stainless steel.

So what gives? Is oak good or bad, and is all oak the same anyway?

Theresa Dilworth of Comtesse Thérèse in Aquebogue knows the answer.

Oak and stainless steel are most decidedly not the same. Not that one’s good and the other’s bad, it just goes toward a style.  Winemakers and coopers alike believe that, as with the variety of grape, environmental factors such as where the tree is grown, in what soil, in what climate, and where on the side of a hill figure into the influence the taste an oak barrel will have on finished wine.

American oak is known for giving a vanilla or coconut taste, and some wineries swear by it. None other than one of the more successful California wineries, Ridge, uses nothing but. Others won’t touch it with a 10-foot pole, saying that, at half the price of French or Eastern European-Hungarian-barrels, you’re getting what you pay for. But, still, some winemakers will use a little American oak to save money and blend it with wines from French oak barrels. All are readily available in the marketplace.

When she started making wine in 2001, Dilworth watched other winemakers at Premium Wine Group, the custom-crush facility in Cutchogue, use different kinds of oaks and then blend them together. One particular type caught her eye (and palate)-Hungarian oak or Quercus robur; the same species that predominates in French barrel making, but it was, just … different.

“It’s spicier,” says Dilworth, “like cinnamon. People can’t put their finger on it.”

Her mind was made up. She’d produce a merlot made entirely in Hungarian oak.

The effect has been to start conversations. Dilworth says in the tasting room people ask her all the time if she’s Hungarian (no). Or if the wine is from Hungary (again, no). And right there is an opening to tell the customer a little bit more about how wine is made and this wine in particular. And, says Dilworth, she just likes the way it tastes.

The use of Hungarian oak has been on the rise worldwide due to changes in the way it’s being forested since the demise of the Soviet Union. The trees are now grown sustainably, with many being planted for each harvested. And the world has taken notice;

French companies are setting up shop in Hungary and local coopers are being trained.

2005 was a tricky year for red wines on the East End. It started raining just before harvest and then kept going for more than a week. Some winegrowers got their grapes in early, before the forecasted deluge. Some watched as the ground beneath their grapes soaked, and waited for them to dry out to pick. The Hungarian oak merlot was picked after the rain, says Dilworth, who adds she lost nearly 30 percent of her crop from swollen berries that had split.

In the glass, the fruit flavors and aromas of this wine predominate.  It’s not too tannic; it’s more like the wines Dilworth says she herself likes: pleasant and drinkable. And the Hungarian oak is fit for that. It is said Hungarian oak lets fruit flavors come through while adding a light oakiness.

The single varietal oak wine is now a solid category in the lineup at Comtesse Thérèse. A Russian oak chardonnay is already in bottle. And just as the global wine market stretches our sense of where wine can be made well, Dilworth has her eye on some Canadian oak. She’s thinking of putting some dessert wine into it, as the Canadians do.