Vintage explorations

Vintage explorations

Glenmorangie's creative relationship with wine barrels has produced some radical and fascinating results, Maragaret Rand reports on the progression so far.

Production | 16 Apr 2000 | Issue 9 | By Margaret Rand

  • Share to:
It’s a tempting prospect – a fine malt matured in a barrel that once contained one of France’s greatest red wines. True, the Glenmorangie Claret Finish does not advertise the fact that the barrel in which it spent its last few months came from Château Mouton Rothschild, one of the finest Bordeaux reds. Nor, if current experiments prove successful, will it blazon the name of Château d’Yquem all over the label of a future Sauternes Finish. Nevertheless, Dr Bill Lumsden, head of Distilleries and Maturation at Glenmorangie, is probably rubbing his hands with glee when a barrel of such an aristocratic provenance arrives. After all if you’re going to experiment with wine barrels for whisky, you might as well go to the top.Wine finishes for malt whisky are of course nothing new. Malt was routinely matured in ex-sherry casks until sherry ceased to be bottled in Britain and the cheap supply of such casks dried up. Now if you want to age your malt in sherry casks you have to write a large cheque to a sherry bodega to persuade it to put its wine in your cask for a few years. It’s an expensive business, and only The Macallan does it for all
its whisky. Glenmorangie already has wood finishes, but when Dr Lumsden wanted to relaunch Glen Moray he had a problem on his hands. How could he make it stand out from its rivals? The answer was white wine – and so the white wine finish was born.The flavours involved are fundamentally different. All the wine finishes that had been available until then were fortified wines: usually sherry, port or Madeira, and usually in the sweet versions of these wines. People had experimented with dry fino sherry casks before, but had generally found the results a bit odd. To use dry white wine barrels – and what’s more, light, dry white wine from France’s Loire Valley, where acidity is high – is to go straight to the other end of the flavour spectrum. At first Lumsden had thought that white wine casks wouldn’t add enough to the whisky, but in fact three to six months in these casks proved the limit: more than that added too much outside flavour.Why does it work, because work it undoubtedly does? Glen Moray is a far smoother, mellower malt than it was. The new 12-year-old is sweeter, softer, with more grape, while the new 16-year-old has more coconut. The Chardonnay finish is relatively simple but with some sweet notes. Sceptics could think the harnessing of white wine is a mere ploy adopted for the sake of difference only.“It was done to tone down elements in the flavour that some people didn’t like,” explains Dr Lumsden. The result is well balanced and less austere than the old Glen Moray, which was never, frankly, all that much fun. They’ve even bought some Glen Moray back from brokers to keep stocks up, especially of the 12-year-old.The wine finishes add no flavour of wine. Or at least, not of any particular wine. This perhaps explains the disparate styles that Lumsden has added to the range. Chardonnay from the Loire does not have a strong flavour of its own: much of its flavour in the glass will have come from the wood. Chenin Blanc from the Loire likewise has high acidity and a light, steely, lemony character: not the most obvious partner if you want to soften an austere malt. Yet both add a gentle grapeyness to the whisky, and greater complexity. Sauvignon Blanc, a grape with more assertive flavours of gooseberries and cut grass, did not prove successful as a wood finish, says Lumsden, which bears out the supposition that what this particular malt likes best in white wine is a fairly neutral flavour. Indeed, filling new-make spirit straight into wine casks proved to be a rapid way of swamping the whisky flavour.The Glenmorangie Claret Finish, likewise, does not taste of red Bordeaux. I am hard put to distinguish any flavour that I can pin down as coming from the wine – and yet Mouton is one of the biggest and richest of clarets. The actual vintage was 1987, a reasonable but not particularly good year, although the vintage probably does not make any difference. Again, what the wine barrel adds is complexity, and a certain finesse. The Glenmorangie Fino Finish is, however, my favourite, for its extraordinary elegance and refinement. These are some of the qualities I love in fino, too, but again, I can detect no actual fino flavour in the whisky.To finish Glenmorangie in Cognac casks is another new departure: spirit meets spirit instead of spirit meets wine. The result is delicate but not, to my palate anyway, as interesting as some. What else is in the wings? Lumsden has tried Glenmorangie in dry white wine casks, but red wine worked so well that he went with that instead. He also has some Glenmorangie maturing in a sweet Malaga cask, some in a rum cask, some in a red Rioja cask, some in a Sauternes cask from Château d’Yquem, and some in casks from an extremely starry Burgundy estate, the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. And not even from one of the DRC’s lesser vineyards: this is from La Romanée-Conti itself, the most prestigious of the lot. A Rhône finish was irresistible: the cask came from Tain l’Hermitage in the Rhône valley, and Glenmorangie is based at Tain in Scotland, making the whisky a liquid expression of the auld alliance. In spite of this, casks aren’t made available to people outside the wine industry all that often, says Lumsden, but he’s sure of enough white wine casks to keep Glen Moray going. The Chardonnay casks may not always come from the Loire, but there’s no shortage of Chardonnay elsewhere and, as he says, he’s not trying to be that specific.What the whisky does not seem to pick up from these wine casks is more oak flavour. “It has already picked up lactones from the wood it has been stored in before it goes into wine casks,” says Lumsden. “You just get a wine top note. And most of these casks have had no charring. If they had, you’d lose a lot of subtlety.” Sixty per cent of the flavour of a whisky, he points out, comes from the cask, either from the wood or from reactions with it. So far all the casks have been of subtly flavoured French oak, though Lumsden himself personally prefers the stronger, more vanilla flavour of American oak in wine. Glenmorangie spends far longer in its wine casks than does Glen Moray. The latter gets just a brief polish of a four or five months on the first fill, and about nine months on the second fill. After that the barrels go to grain whisky. The Glenmorangie wine barrels are used for one fill only, and the whisky may well stay for another year in the Yquem barrel, having been there for some months already. “It’s about increasing complexity,” says Lumsden. “I nosed the Yquem cask when it arrived, and I didn’t pick up a lot that was different from other wine casks. But after six months the whisky had taken on a lot of flavour – an almondy, sweet character, and luscious creaminess. The sweetness really comes through.” So it probably would from a lesser sauternes, although it’s true that Yquem is the most intense of all. Lumsden accepts that the property the barrels have come from, and the vineyard that produced the wine they held, probably doesn’t make any difference to the taste. But who, in his position, wouldn’t go for the very best available? So what else is on his wish list? He has been trying to get a cask from Chianti and one from Champagne. Not many Champagne houses still use casks, but Krug and Bollinger do, though only for fermenting the juice. The results might not be so different from Chardonnay from the Loire: light, grapey, rather neutral. Château Pétrus, the rich, silky red of St-Emilion, is one he’d love to try, and so is Château Musar, the spicy, luscious, world-class red from the Lebanon. These are all for Glenmorangie. He is also thinking of different finishes for Ardbeg, but those experiments haven’t started yet. Now, what sort of wine goes with the taste of smoked fish?
Magazine Archive

From the archive

Select an issue

Subscribe Now

Subscriptions for
Whisky Magazine are available
in print, digital or as a
complete package

The Benefits

8 print editions a year

Enjoy the convenience of home delivery

Full access to every digital edition via desktop, iOS or Android device

Latest Issue Subscribe Now

The Whisky Encyclopedia - Coming Soon 2024

Discover the world of whisky with our comprehensive encyclopedia
Featuring companies, distilleries, brands, glossaries, and cocktails

Join The Community

Sign up to the Whisky Magazine
newsletter letter and get access to the latest
in all things whisky

paragraph publishing ltd.   Copyright © 2024 all rights reserved.   Website by Acora One

Consent Preferences