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Oak barrels

Last month, in my list of five things to know about chardonnay, I argued that the wine “should not taste like a tree.” That was my lament not just that too many winemakers overdo the oak treatment so the wine tastes more of the barrel than the grape, but also that we consumers have come to expect wine to taste more like wood than fruit.

That isn’t a diatribe against oak. Nearly all of the world’s finest wines see oak in some form before they ever reach a bottle. Here are five things to know about how oak influences the flavor, quality and price of the wines you enjoy.

Oak adds flavor

You can taste oak in your wine. Oak’s influence is more pronounced when small barrels are used, because more wine comes in contact with the wood. These are the types of barrels you see when you visit wineries. They usually hold about 225 liters (60 gallons), or 25 cases of wine, though sizes vary slightly.

Oak imparts spicy flavors—clove, nutmeg (wood spice), vanilla. Barrels are made by treating wood staves with fire, and winemakers can order light, medium or heavy “toast” to accentuate the flavors. Wine critic Robert Parker described the flavor as “pain grillé,” or grilled bread, perhaps because, well, everything tastes better in French.

American oak is a different variety than French, with a different grain to the wood, so it imparts different flavors, such as coconut and dill. Hungarian oak is noted for nutty flavors. All these flavors are most prominent in new barrels.

Oak adds structure

Oak barrels have tannin, which leaches into the wine as it ages. Tannin is that astringent sensation on your palate that leaves your mouth dry or makes your teeth itch. When properly integrated into the wine, it sneaks up on you as the flavor fades. Overwrought, it wallops you like a baseball bat (as in, wine should not taste like a tree). Tannin helps a wine age; it mellows with time as the wine softens. It is most noticeable in red wines, but you can feel tannins in some white wines, too, especially those aged in barrels or fermented on their skins. Grape skins, seeds and stems also add tannin to wine, but the influence of oak is the most perceptible.

Oak’s contribution to a wine’s structure can be more subtle than tannin. Wines fermented and aged in larger barrels or oak casks benefit from limited exposure to air as they age. And because winemakers don’t really want their wines to taste like trees, they use older, or “neutral” barrels to add structure without flavor. That’s why you’ll hear winemakers discuss how much of the blend was aged in new vs. older barrels.

And of course, it makes economic sense to reuse barrels, because . . .

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Oak adds structure

French oak barrels, the most prized, range in price from about $900 to over $3,000, depending on the quality and treatment of the wood. American oak barrels cost about $600. These prices vary, of course, and the global rise in demand for wine and growth in the number of wineries over the past few decades have driven prices higher.

Barrel selection is a big deal. Last year, I joined vintner Rutger de Vink and winemaker Joshua Grainer at RdV Vineyards in Delaplane, Va., for a “barrel tasting,” comparing several lots of their wine aged in barrels from various French coopers. The differences were so subtle, I was glad I didn’t have to choose which to buy. But their decisions would ultimately influence how their future vintages would taste and age in bottle, as well as how much the wine would cost.

For example, a new barrel that contains 25 cases, or 300 bottles, of wine and costs $1,000 would add about $3.33 to the price of a bottle. That gets magnified as the wine wends its way through the distribution system to us. And that’s why . . .

There are “oak alternatives”

Winemakers can add oak flavors without the expense of barrels. Oak chips can be macerated in wine as it ages in stainless steel tanks, or oak staves can be suspended in the wine to impart some flavor. Liquid oak extract can also be used. That’s why your $5 chardonnay or cabernet may taste oaky.

Flavoring wine this way and making it delicious can be an art of its own. But winemakers use these shortcuts because we consumers believe wine should taste like a tree, or at least, oaky. It doesn’t have to be that way, so we should remember . . .

There are alternatives to oak

There is a counter movement brewing that views oak as an additive, something unnatural for wine. Stainless steel tanks are relatively new on wine’s timeline, and emphasize they freshness over complexity. At Familia Zuccardi, oak has been practically banished from the family’s new winery in the Uco Valley of Argentina’s Mendoza province in favor of concrete fermentation and aging vessels fashioned from local materials. Clay amphorae are the darlings of winemakers trying to adapt ancient techniques for the modern palate.

So explore, and pay attention to what the winemaker—or the label—is telling you about the wine you are enjoying.

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McIntyre blogs at dmwineline.com.

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