There is good oak and clumsy oak. Good wine and clumsy wine. Some wines benefit by being raised in oak barrels which provide development and silky textures. Fewer benefit by oaky flavors. A lot of the winemaker's art depends on deft use of oak flavoring. After all, we don't eat wood. Why should we drink it?
I was standing in our tasting room recently, discussing some upcoming tasting events with a few of our customers. Among the winemaker visits and regional tastings I spoke of was a novel Saturday event called "Oak Lovers' Paradise," featuring--you guessed it--oaky-flavored wines.
The lady next to me scrunched up her face, shivered, and let out an "Ewwww!", as if someone had just passed gas. Oaky wine, obviously, was something she found viscerally repellent.
The truth is, a lot of people have been expressing an aversion to "oaky" wine for a very long time. I suspect it is why a lot of people avoid drinking any wine with the name Chardonnay on the label, although the most popular varietal on the market is still Chardonnay, not to mention iconic wines labeled Chablis, Meursault and Montrachet.
And let's not forget the world's most revered red wines, all of which see time in the barrel.
So what's the deal? Why such a hostility toward a wine feature that is nearly ubiquitous? Perhaps a little digging on the subject is needed, and the best place to start is determining what makes a wine "oaky", at least oaky enough to turn people off.
Oak barrels have been the vessel of choice for aging wines made from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, Syrah, Petite Sirah, Chardonnay and many other wines for its ability to allow the wine to develop silky textures and, in a lot of cases, to impart oak flavors to wines.
Barrels made of staves from different countries, and even different forests impart unique flavors to wines. And the level of toasting or char on the inside of the barrel add additional qualities to wine, making the choice of barrel an important ingredient in a winemaker's decision-making.
If a winemaker--like Robert Eymael of Germany's Monchhof winery--wants the silky texture of wine raised in oak barrels, yet doesn't want any wood flavors to emerge, he or she uses well-used oak barrels that have had all barrel residue removed. Many winemakers also use bigger barrels, or huge casks for the same reason. That is why we can drink pure Riesling from Monchhof winery and crystalline white wines from Alsace's Zind-Humbrecht, all of which have spent time in the barrel.
I suspect our oak-hating customer's objection isn't oak at all, but assertive oaky flavors in certain wines--especially Chardonnay--that she finds off-putting.
Confused About Oaky Flavors?
Nearly all new wine drinkers express confusion about the role of oak in a wine's flavor, and only a guided tour by your local wine merchant or a knowledgeable friend can demonstrate what an oaky-flavored wine tastes like. The best way I know is to place two glasses side-by-side and pour an unoaked Chardonnay in one, and an oaky-flavored wine in another and compare and contrast each wine's appearances, aromas, textures and flavors. (Try Neyers unoaked 304 Chardonnay side-by-side with Neyers El Novilero Chardonnay to vividly demonstrate what oak brings to Chardonnay.)
Chardonnay, particularly, is susceptible to oak influence, and I suspect much of people's rejection of this noble grape is due to the clumsy use of oak flavoring, either by using too much new oak cooperage, phony seasoning by oak chip "tea bags", unnecessary induction of malolactic fermentation or a sloppy combination of these manipulations.
The result of this is an off-putting buttermilky finish that leaves one with a rancid morning-mouth taste from poorly made Chardonnay. Contrast that with the clean, fresh feeling your mouth gets after sipping well-made Chardonnays from Chablis, Meursault, Macon, Saint Aubin and Puligny-Montrachet.
A deft touch with oak by a skilled winemaker paints a different picture. Think of a dish that has too much cumin or black pepper in it, so you can't taste the main ingredient. Careful seasoning can add a dimension to a dish that makes it not only delicious, but memorable. So it is with winemaking. French oak barrels, properly toasted and selected for the intensity, flavor, acidity and weight of a wine, can add very attractive flavors of vanilla and spice that add dimension to a wine.
Red wines, which also can be made ponderous and tannic by clumsy use of oak, seem to be able to integrate oak flavors more successfully. Modern-style Barolos and Pinot Noirs have appealing texture and quite attractive flavors when well-married to oak, even though both wines can be challenged by too much sap, char or tannin from oak. The operative phrase is well-married.
American, Hungarian, Slovenian Oak
Winemakers have been using oak barrels other than French, each offering particular characteristics from the regions of their origin. The tightness of the grain, the flavor of the residue and the way the barrel takes to charring all contribute to the way a wine develops in the barrel. More air contact results in faster development, which could improve a wine if done well, or harm a wine if done poorly.
American oak, which often imparts a distinctive cedar aroma and flavor to wine, is the oak of choice with many Zinfandel producers, some Cabernet producers and at least one super premium Chardonnay--ZD. Other winemakers may use a combination of American and French oak to season and flavor a wine the same way a chef might add herbs and spices to a dish to make it more interesting.
Too much char or inept use of American oak, however, runs the risk of giving a wine a Bourbon-like flavor, which I consider a disaster for a wine that purports to be a dinner wine. (To my chagrin, the past year has seen commercial wine stored in Bourbon barrels designed for people who use wine as an anesthetic, I suppose.)
The Bottom Line on Oak
To oak or not to oak is a question, but not the question. Oaking wine is desirable for a lot of wines, and as our customers have shown, for every person who scrunches up their nose at the idea of oak flavors in wine, there is someone else who revels in those same oaky flavors.
As usual, enjoyment of wine is a personal experience, and enjoyment of wine is also hugely dependent on the proper time and place for a wine. I can't tell you the number of times an indifferent wine became glorious with the right food and the right people around me.
With or without oak.