Oak has a bad rep. I know lots of people who won’t drink chardonnay at all because they had a bad experience with an over-oaked new world example. But the influence of oak on wine is not as simple as that.
But oak also contributes many of the flavours we associate with good wine, especially in reds. So, to oak or not to oak: that is the question!
‘And many strokes, though with a little axe, Hew down and fell the hardest-timbered oak.’ -William Shakespeare, King Henry VI Part III
So, what is oak all about? Why is it the Marmite of winemaking – you either love it or hate it? Will the excess of the 80s lead to the end of oak in white wine as ladies who lunch yearn for ‘anything but Chardonnay’?
Hearts of oak
In antiquity people used palm wood containers to transport wine in Mesopotamia. Our ancestors struggled to keep wine fresh for a longer time and they tried lots of different containers and methods of preservation.
The Greeks used clay amphorae to store and age wine adding a layer of olive oil on the top, to prevent the wine from oxidising.
The Romans discovered that wine kept in oak barrels keeps longer, becomes smoother and tastes better. They swapped from fragile clay amphorae to wooden barrels around the 3rd century CE because that made it easier to transport the wine.
Barrels roll. Amphorae just flop over and break. It’s like transporting your wine in a flower-pot.
Properties of barrels and casks
The ancients discovered the value of oak by experiment and experience. Today we understand the science better.
Although other types of wood are sometimes used to make wine barrels, including acacia and chestnut, oak is by far the most common. Oak barrels come in different shape and sizes. The most famous are the Bordeaux barriques, Burgundy style barrels and Italian style botti.
There are four reasons why oak is so popular:
- Oak is a natural antiseptic. Wine fermented or matured in oak barrels needs less sulphur dioxide.
- Barrels help clarify and stabilise the wine. This means that the winemaker doesn’t need to use additives to make a clear and stable wine, resulting in a more natural product.
- It smoothes the wine tannins, improves wine age-ability, texture and stabilises colour in red wines
- Oak barrels, especially new oak, impart more flavours to the wine, which make the wine more complex and tasty. Oak flavours vary according to the degree of toasting and the type of oak you use. They include: vanilla, coconut, sweet spices (cloves, nutmeg and cinnamon), chocolate, coffee, cedar, smokiness, charred wood, developing to caramel, earthiness, herbaceous and savoury with age. Old barrels and casks do not add perceptible flavours to the wine after about three years of use.
The influence of oak on wine
If using oak is so great, why do some people hate it? The answer is simple. It depends on how the oak flavour is added to the wine. By analogy, a bit of salt can enhance the flavour of your meal but too much will ruin it.
New oak barrels
We were at a wine tasting at WSET last night and the wonderful master of wine who ran it said that ‘new oak is a sign that the winemaker wants to produce a serious wine’. It adds extra flavours and complexity to wines that are made for ageing.
New oak barrels are extremely expensive. A 225l wine barrel (Bordeaux barrique) cost starts at 250€. This is one reason few producers use 100% new oak barrels in their wine making every year, preferring to use a mix of new and old barrels.
Why is it so expensive?
- It takes an entire oak tree to produce two barrels
- For oak barrels, the oak tree needs to be at least 80 years old.
- It takes between 10-36 months to prepare the barrel, for example to wash out unwanted tannins in the wood.
- It is hand-crafted and hand-toasted and a cooper’s hourly rate would make a plumber or banker blush.
Premium wine makers prefer new oak barrels, especially for reds but some premium white wine (most commonly Chardonnay) can be aged in new oak.
Using new oak or not depends also on the winemaker’s preferences. Some premium wines, such as traditional-style Amarone and Barolo, do not see new oak at all.
Oak chips, staves, cubes
Some winemakers use small pieces of oak to impart an oak flavour without the cost of new oak barrels. They cost much less, around ~7.20€ per kg. They use it during fermentation as a sort of substitute for barrel maturation and ageing.
It is legal in many countries and is the preferred method for adding oak flavour to non-premium wine. If you see ‘oak maturation’ or ‘oak influence’ on the label, the odds are that the winemaker used chips and staves. Even the French made this method legal in March 2016 to adapt to the demands of the market. Zut alors!
Call me a traditionalist, but I prefer to stay away from this style of wine, as I don’t want my wine to be messed around with.
Oak essences or oak extract
This winemaking additive can can substitute, in a cheap way, for the flavours imparted by new oak barrels. It is illegal in many countries.
Oenological tannins have been used for a long time and are approved additives in many winemaking regulations.
These tannins are extractions from oak, chestnut or birch wood, grape seeds or other plant resources.
Wines that taste the same every year, even in some premium wine, will most likely use oenological tannins as additives.
We don’t like this approach. Wine should be a natural product that reflects its origin, environment, vintage and the mind and heart of the winemaker. Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. Give us spots on our apples but leave us the birds and bees.
Oak flavours in white wine
As the majority of red wine is produced using some form of oak influence, people don’t recognise its influence. Overoaked reds, and especially reds made with chips or extracts, taste and smell too woody or too astringent.
The story with white wine is different. A lot of white wine is produced in stainless steel tanks, without ever seeing an oak barrel. This means that there is a clear difference between white wine made with oak influence and without. This explains people’s sensitivity to oak in white wines.
Let’s go through an imagination exercise and see what oak barrels bring to white wine.
Picture that you have a filet of nice white fish. You can have it raw (the equivalent of the grape itself) or you can bake it in the oven with a bit of lemon and salt, en papillotte (unoaked simple and fruity wine). It will taste nice, because the fish is good quality and fresh. And this can be the perfect choice sometimes.
Wine without oak influence is usually young and fruity. There are some exceptions, such as aged Riesling or Grüner Veltliner. They go well with unsophisticated dishes or by themselves. The key rule in wine and food pairing is to match the complexity of food with the complexity of wine. Complex food and simple wine don’t mix any more than Oxford dons and football hooligans.
Then imagine that you chargrill that fillet of fish and there is a slight smokiness/ toastiness to it. And add a bit of butter, herbs, condiments and pepper, sprinkled with some lemon juice.
And than you have some vanilla-flavoured pudding with a citrus or tropical fruit compote at the end.
What does it taste like? Are you enjoying the thought of it? This is like a very good quality Chardonnay, oaked, meant to go with more complex food. Classical examples of subtle oak for Chardonnay come from Burgundy in France including regions like Meursault, Puligny-Montrachet, Chassagne-Montrachet, Pouilly-Fuissée.
Now, imagine you are having the same type of dish at different restaurant: at the work canteen, in a local pub, at a gourmet restaurant, at a Michelin-starred restaurant. The taste, the presentation, the sophistication of the dish will be different, depending on the style of the restaurant. In some restaurants it will smell more like fish, maybe it will have too much butter. In other restaurants it will be a delight that melts into your mouth and generates layers and depths of pleasure. But would you stop eating fish just because you had a bad experience somewhere? And would you expect every fish meal to be cooked by Heston Blumenthal?
With oaked wine, it is all about the choice you make and trying different styles and different price points until you find what you like. In the end, it comes down to personal preference and if even the best oaked examples don’t do the business for you, than avoid it.
Personally, I am all in favour of oak barrels.