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Oak in wine – a blessing or curse?

Oscar Foulkes August 22, 2002 Uncategorized No comments

In the world of wine, oak is an international currency. Consumers, collectors and show judges alike are seduced by the flavours and aromas imparted by new oak. Every year tens of thousands of mature trees are cut down for the barrel industry. In the absence of empirical measurement of flavour and quality we are cast adrift in a swamp of subjective opinion. Much of what follows is undeniably the product of my – subjective – tastes and preferences. For that I cannot make any apology. Wine would be a boring industry indeed if we all had the same tastes.

Where oak is concerned I have two major recollections from my early years of tasting. Firstly, how easy it is to be turned on by the sexy aroma of a wine that’s been in new oak, regardless of how it performs on the palate (actually, if you have tasted enough wines, that part becomes partially numbed, anyway). Secondly, the difficulty I had distinguishing between fruit and oak tannins. I think I’ve learned that oak tannins dry out the mouth much more – almost like blotting paper.

I’ve developed the opinion that you can tell more about a wine from how it feels in the mouth, than where it fits on the flavour wheel. This is a critical part of understanding the role of oak in wine. For me, real fruit extraction expresses itself in the feeling of that flavour coating in the mouth, after the wine has been swallowed. The feeling could variously be described as silky, velvety, chunky, syrupy or viscous. A wine novice gave me the best metaphor for describing this. Imagine mixing a glass of Oros concentrate with half a litre of water. Now compare that with a table spoon of oros mixed in the same amount of water. Intensely fruity wines are like the former example, and are preferable under all circumstances.

In my view, oak performs at least two important functions in a wine. The first, and most obvious, are the contributions to flavour and structure. The second is a process of controlled oxidation, which helps to ‘polish’ or finish off a wine. The proviso is that the amount of oak deployed is in balance with the degree of fruit intensity in the wine (see the Oros metaphor above). There is no question that some vineyards have a higher quality potential, and hence deliver better concentrations of fruit. Consequently, not only are these wines better equipped to cope with the oak regimen employed, but are also enhanced by judicious barrel maturation. These cuvées (e.g. grand cru Burgundies, single vineyard wines, classed growth chateaux) happen often to have a high percentage of new oak, but it’s the intrinsic fruit quality that makes these wines exceptional, not the oak per se. They may not be quite as profound without the oak, but it’s the fruit that drives the wine, whether it’s a classical Old World superstar or a New World hype wine.

I have come to develop a rather jaundiced view of ‘Reserve’ wines, particularly from the New World. Occasionally there is a difference in the fruit quality between this and the standard release, but the major difference is generally that the reserve has had a whack of new oak. Yes, it has more flavour; yes, it may win awards, but is this what winemaking is really about? Does it come down to a battle of the barrel budgets?

I am regularly presented with samples of new releases across the price spectrum, but seldom find red wines that deliver on the palate. In many cases these are wannabe premium wines, that fall into that category by virtue of new oak and price tag alone. It must be said that winemakers, like consumers, have their own tastes, and there are many of them that like strong, oaky flavours. It is their prerogative to produce for their own tastes, as it is our prerogative to not drink what they make.

Some of my wine drinking experience is based on wines from the Rhône and Southern France, where oak appears not to be an important tool.

It would appear that the barrel-filled chais of Bordeaux have had a major impact on world winemaking. It was here, after all, that Max Schubert was inspired to make Grange Hermitage. But a very tiny percentage of the wines produced in the world are ‘premier cru’, and only these wines realistically deserve – or need – the full oak treatment. I cannot decide whether so many wines are barrel-driven because of the desire to win awards, or because marketing departments have decreed that oaky wines are easier to sell. What I do believe is that many lesser wines would be a lot easier to drink if they hadn’t gone into barrel.

It intrigues me that the same consumers who won’t drink wooded chardonnay will lap up a sexily oaked, fruity shiraz.

The world is about to experience a glut of wine as a result of huge plantings in the New World (25% of Australia’s vineyards haven’t yet produced a harvest). Now that’s a challenge for marketing departments! No doubt some of that could end up as “90-pointer” wine, but what to do with all the rest? My view is that the dwindling (or stagnant) wine market could be stimulated if the some of this increased production of red were sold as fruity, soft, round, unwooded wine, with a commensurate drop in price. This style of red wine can be marketed within months of the harvest, with much-reduced production and holding costs.

Clearly, all of this is subjective, and perhaps my taste in oak is more conservative than most, but I can’t help feeling that the use of oak is like kicking in rugby. It’s a useful tool, once you have the fundamentals in place.

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