With the constant ebb and flow of the American palate, it came to pass that the “ABC” (Anything But Chardonnay) movement became a thing. Most of you reading these lines will remember the days when the more brooding the Chards could be, the better. Those were very ripe, heavy, alcoholic, and oak charged wines. Heck, it sometimes felt like chewing wood. But the proverbial pendulum has swung, as it always does, way too far into a place where oak is unjustifiably made the villain.
Oak barrels, arguably the second most expensive feature in wine making after labor ($1,200-$1,500 each!), can truly add beautiful layers of taste to wine. Think of it as the spice rack of wine. In fact, if you were to taste certain un-oaked wines, you would probably find them harsh and difficult to drink. The oak “signifiers” (wine geek word) that can enhance the aromas of wine include among others: toast, butterscotch, vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg, coconut, and caramel. And no, the buttery smell, is NOT from the oak. Instead is comes from a chemical compound (diacetyl) which is a byproduct from a different wine making technique that is not oak related. Who knew, right?
Oak barrels are mostly made from either American or French oak. Oak trees, like vines, vary with site specific features such as soil and climate and for that reason certain forests are more coveted than others. Overall, American oak, which is heavier and denser, tends to impart more of the vanilla and coconut flavors while French oak is more on the subtle side. The choice of one type of oak over the other is based on stylistic and financial considerations.
The “oakiness” flavors are also a function of the “toast” and age of the barrel. Coopers will use fire to gently burn the inside of the barrel so that as more of the staves become toasted, more of the oak taste is imparted into the wine. Oak typically ceases to leach its goodness after 4-5 uses. After that time the barrels are rendered “neutral”. With that in mind, winemakers can choose to use a percentage of a certain age barrels when making their wines. What happens to neutral barrels? They can become aging vessels for spirits or sometimes even furniture.
So, please do not be a “oakist” and hate on this ancient form of wine making. What you don’t like is not the oak per se but the overwhelming amount that sometimes can be distracting. In that, I’m with you.
Lorenzo, the wine guy
Friends, food, and wine...I'm happy there.