We’ve all heard it before: “This chardonnay is fabulous! I can smell the vanilla and taste the butterscotch. Do I ever love that duo.”  

Well, maybe not in those exact words, but surely something close. Over the last couple of decades, the flavors imparted by oak have grown to dominate not only chardonnay but other varietals, as well in all price points and from around the world.

It’s the essence of oak (whether or not from barrels) rather than the actual character of the grape, which is often interpreted as the true flavor of many wines. And that’s a shame.

In the hundreds of tastings I’ve attended and/or conducted ,the subject of oak — whether positive or negative — often dominates much of the conversation. One held recently featured a broad selection of chardonnay priced from $7 to $50. Some participants had more experience with wine than others, but all enjoyed it and were interested in expanding their horizons. While excess oak was demonstrated in certain wines of all price points, it was most universally prominent in the lower priced wines except for one “unoaked” (a new trend) example.

Let’s take a look at costs. French oak barrels (more on this later) cost in excess of $1,200 each, American is oak going for about $500 plus and others (mostly from a variety of eastern European countries) are selling for somewhere in between. So how can the vintner afford to “over-oak” a $10 chardonnay? The oak barrel alone (if used) could account for more than half the wholesale value of many of these wines.

The answer: oak chips, oak dust or oak extract is added to the fermenting juice as a flavor enhancer with no concern as to the barrel’s more critical contribution to the winemaking.

Why? Because the flavors imparted by oak are the ones a generation of wine drinkers have been conditioned to think is what a wine is supposed to taste like. And as our tasting showed, this trend is also common with higher-priced wines where overuse of expensive new barrels is to blame.

Aside from adding a bit of spice and intrigue to the finished wine, oak’s principal role in winemaking lies in the porous nature of its grain. Oak barrels provide for respiration aiding in the development and complexity of the wine. French oak (from many forests and countless coopers) has a tighter grain imparting less flavor than American oak and that of other areas. This is why it is so pricy and primarily used in more expensive wines where the cost can be better absorbed (no pun intended). Oak, when properly paired with exceptional fruit, will complement rather than overpower the varietal character.  

Oak (along with other wooden) barrels and uprights have been a standard in winemaking for centuries. New oak does impart distinct flavors, but these should be seen as a seasoning — as one would use in cooking a delicate dish. Think of any seasoning, spice or ingredient as a part of your favorite recipe. In the proper proportions they will enhance the dish. But in excess, flavors and textures will be changed resulting in something different. Some may like it, but is this the dish’s true flavor expression you were looking to create?

Given the respiratory nature of oak, wineries will also use a portion of older oak barrels to balance the flavor extraction of the new while maintaining its other attributes to make a better wine. Not so in many less expensive wines where new oak barrels are unaffordable and substitutes are often used in excess to artificially flavor the wine.  

It’s been said many times in the world of wine that “great wines are made in the vineyard.” Are we now looking at wines (pretending to be great) being made in the forest? Here again, the pendulum appears to be swinging back to the more judicious use of oak in finer wines and unoaked versions are becoming more available at the lower price ranges.


Questions and comments

As always, I look forward to hearing your questions and comments, and thank those who sent me theirs in response to “Tastes, they are a changin’?” from the June 15 Wine Exchange. Here are a couple:

Yes, styles change, as well as tastes.Think of Picasso from realistic to cubism to total deconstruction and back to recognizable objects. In wine crisp whites turned to butter and oak and reds from tannic to mellow with alcohols climbing from 11 percent to more than 16 percent. Now, like Picasso, we seem be returning to some elegance and subtlety. Particularly some newer California pinots that again taste like the grape and not a plum Danish. — Jon

So now we must ask is this a “chicken or egg” phenomenon? Courageous winemakers seem to be returning to time-honored styles and “think for themselves” consumers are setting aside the printed doctrine and supporting them. Which came first is not as important as the result where we can all benefit. 

An additional benefit of the changes you appropriately discuss is a new level of consumer predictability. When winemaking styles were all over the “ballpark,” you could be buying a varietal without a sure expectation of what the taste experience would be. Uncertainty led to the almost extinction of chenin blanc, a wonderful varietal corrupted by inconsistent styles and consumer hesitation. — Paul

Chenin blanc (also a favorite of mine) is a classic example and others abound as well. Thankfully, “predictability” need not come at the expense of “individuality.” While the stylistic impression of any great wine will be distinct from others, its varietal character and typicity of place should be recognizable.  

Share your experiences with other readers by commenting on this article at napavalleyregister.com/wine-exchange or email me at allenbalik@savorlifethroughwine.com.

Allen Balik, a Napa resident, has been a wine collector, consultant, author, fundraiser and enthusiast for more than 30 years.