What a difference a week makes!

What a difference a week makes!

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

You may not be aware of it, but you really like oak in your wine.

How and why oak infused wines became, and remain, so popular is an interesting chapter in wine history.  After they learned barrel making from the (conquered) Gauls, the Romans turned oak barrels into the primary storage and transport vessel for their wines (as well as other liquids and solids).  No matter who the ultimate consumer was, either Roman legions or the dominated city/state population, wine got to them in barrels, atop a wagon, pulled by horses.

Much like any animal or plant-based, storage container, oak also imparts its own unique qualities to wine.  But unlike the previous storage vessels, which typically resulted in unattractive aroma/flavor side effects, most, if not all of oak’s serendipitous effects were considered quite positive, if not also outright beneficial.

In time, the effect of oak on wine evolved from an incidental side effect to an integral part of the winemaker’s options, particularly with respect to red wine.  The red wine and oak recipe is produced so routinely, and at virtually all retail price points, that I suspect many are unaware that they like their favorite red wine (and some whites) because of oaks influence.

So, what exactly are these side effects that oak barrels deliver, and how do they occur?  Let’s take the second part of that question first. In its post fermentation state, wine is rather edgy and astringent, and aging, either in non-reactive containers or barrels, is needed to overcome and/or mollify those aspects.  In neutral containers like stainless steel, cement lined vats, or old large casks. they shed their youth while evolving into a relaxed, fruit-dominant, crowd pleaser. 

On the other hand, wines aged in oak are being transformed into something that is far more complex than the underlying fruity characteristics of its primary varietal.  And of the two basic oak options—barrel fermentation and barrel aging—the latter seems to be the method of choice.

The level and quality of oak’s transformational capabilities depends on a variety of factors: 1) The tree’s birthplace—France, America, or Eastern Europe.  2) The production process which results in individual staves. 3) The barrel’s age—new or previously used.  4) The barrel’s size and tightness of grain structure.  5) The barrel’s searing or “toasting” level—light, medium or dark.)

With the above array in mind, the winemaker will have a veritable spreadsheet of options from which to work, but here, in short, is the conventional wisdom: French oak is considered the finest; smaller barrels “give more” than larger ones; ditto for new barrels versus previously used (aka neutral) ones; and the toasting level and grain tightness depends on what ultimate effect the winemaker is targeting. 

What are those side effects that oak contributes to wine?  Forgive the pun or not, but there is a barrelful of properties, that span the entire Tasting Protocol from assessing appearance in the See step, to the concluding assessment at the Savor and Summing up step.  Oak affects colors, aromatics, flavors, tannin levels, texture, structure, body style, and complexity, including overall general quality and style.

Everyone prefers their reds deep, dark and full bodied.  Oak aging does that.  How about that pleasing yellow tint to your Chardonnay?  Oak imparts that. 

And remember those secondary aromas of cedar, cigar box, vanilla, caramel, mocha, toffee, chocolate, smoke and nutmeg?  Yep, those scents are leached out of the toasted interior during the wine’s sojourn in barrel.

And of course, we all prefer our reds to be smooth, buttery, and creamy, without roughness or astringency.  The porous nature of oak barrels delivers those qualities, via oxygenation or controlled oxidation, plus the concentration that ensues from the wine’s measured evaporation.

In closing, some writers, including yours truly, have noted that a winemaker’s use of oak is much like how a Chef utilizes herbs, spices and condiments to transform and elevate the aroma, flavor and texture of a recipe’s basic, but rather bland, main ingredient.  Without that arsenal of culinary options, how drab would the food be?  In that same vein, it makes one wonder what wine would taste like, or how appealing it would be without oak’s all-encompassing influence?  Fascinating, no?




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