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Fire in the Barrel

August 15, 2010

Most people don’t look at an oak tree and think, “Mmm, that’s tasty stuff.”  When I used to take half and half in my coffee, I didn’t even like mixing it with a wood stirrer, because it would impart an unpleasant and distinctly woody flavor.

But ask any vintner, distiller, or even brewer, and they will tell you just how tasty good oak can be.  Not all oak is created equal.  But we will get to that in a few moments.

Did you ever wonder how wines made from grapes can taste like vanilla or chocolate or smoke?  I mean after all it’s just grape juice that’s gone bad.  There are certain flavors that actually come from the grapes themselves, some come from the yeast, and others come from the oak.

American wine drinkers tend to love oak.  But that has been changing, and personally, I think that’s a good thing.

What I really want to talk about today is the role of oak in the world’s best wines, how this practice has been corrupted in lower priced bottles, and why it’s good for both true wine lovers and bargain hunters to look for unoaked wines.

The craft of making oak barrels is similar to winemaking itself.  Instead of vines there are trees.  But factors such as soil, temperature, geography and craftsmanship matter tremendously.  Just like pinot noir will taste different in Burgundy or Santa Barbara, French oak tastes different than American oak.  You may have heard of Limousin oak, but there is also super premium oak produced in Vosges, Allier, Tronçais and Nevers.

Making the barrels is no easy task.  And then they are toasted, to varying degrees.  The level of char depends on what flavor the winemaker is looking for the barrel to give to the wine.

I like to think of these barrels like very expensive teabags.

The first time a wine goes in, most of their flavor is extracted.  Sure, they can be used again and again, but what you get out of them is much weaker.  This is the difference between a wine aged in oak versus being aged in “new oak” barrels.

Truth be told, good oak used judiciously adds a lot to the world’s best wines.  It gives flavor, added color, and structure in the form of tannins.  The expense of good oak barrels is one of the things that drives up the cost of great wine.

That is perfectly reasonable.

What is unreasonable is he consumer mindset that if oak is used in the world’s best wines, then it must be good.  Consequently, winemakers have learned that if they put the word “oak” on a label it sells.  But as we mentioned, good oak is expensive.  And the wines that sell the most are the cheapest ones.  So that leaves winemakers looking for inexpensive ways to add oak flavor without the high price tag.  This is where wood chips enter the winemaking process.

If good barrels are like tea bags, they are very nice conical, silk tea bags filled with whole leaf teas.  That would make wood chips more like Red Rose or Tetley – paper bags filled with tea dust.  Yes, it’s still tea, but it’s thin and bitter.

The saddest part is that the cachet of oak barrel aging has ruined a lot of fine wines.  White wines especially.  Some varietals just want to be crisp and lively, like sauvignon blanc for example.  Oak aging diminishes these defining characteristics, and gives the sense that the winemaker is trying to makeover the grape in the image of her more popular sister chardonnay.

Here is a good cheap wine buying tip: Given that wines aged in steel don’t cost as much to produce, they can be less expensive than their oak aged counterparts.  If there is an oaked and unoaked wine at the same price point, it’s entirely possible the unoaked one contains higher quality juice.

What I like most about unoaked wine is that I get to actually taste the grapes.  The wine is entirely flavored by the grapes (and the yeast), and it helps to give me a better appreciation for how a certain varietal expresses itself.  By understanding what an unoaked chardonnay tastes like, an oak aged bottle becomes a lot more interesting.  Not to mention that unoaked wine is just bright, vibrant, and fun.

Go get some now, before summer is over.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. August 15, 2010 2:41 pm

    Unfortunately more and more wineries are using wood chips and inserts in steel barrels. We have been trying to get a hold of some wine barrels to experiment aging spirits in, and are having problems finding someone willing to work with us because of this.

    There is a growing tradition in the spirits industry to finish aging whiskey’s in port, maderia, sherry etc barrels. Maybe this will, in the future, help lower the price of oaked wines. If there is a secondary market, the winemaker is able to recoup some of the cost of the barrel.

  2. John H permalink
    August 16, 2010 12:13 am

    Profusssor: thank you for starting off on a discussion of a most interesting topic. I think this is worthy of more than one post and might like to throw out some other points to consider.
    Kermit Lynch’s discussion of the importance of using old oak barrels to create that most vibrant Chardonnay, Chablis. See his first book. Remember this Berkeley days before kids…
    Also, check out his discussion of that third option, cement, which is often used in Southern France.
    Finally, my favorite wine maker/grower, Wells Guthrie, of Copain, has excellent discussion of the use of whole clusters for tannins and aromatics versus new oak. His Syrahs are compelling and his Pinots are fast following that direction. Rumor has it he has a Chardonnay from the Chalone region coming soon.
    This was written on an iPhone, so sorry for the typos.

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