What do you mean “Oak”?

IMG_0524Wine production can involve the use of things made with oak. Barrels, tuns, staves, chips, and even sawdust. While it seems obvious that some wines have an ‘oaky’ taste to them, a lot of wine tourists that I’ve met over the years seem to have differing understandings of what makes a wine ‘oaky’.

Not all wines that touch oak are going to taste ‘oaky’.

Oak in wine making is infinitely variable, like a spice. Too much salt will make food taste bad while too little won’t bring anything out. The trick is to get it just right. The best chefs in the world are the ones that not only know how to work that balance, but also share similar tastes to what you prefer in food. (That’s one of the major reasons I’ve resisted doing wine reviews on this site. Who’s to say that the wines I love should be equally loved by everyone?)

So what do wine people mean when they talk about ‘oak’ flavours? What makes some people cringe from ‘oaky’ wines?

Wish I’d made this up…

On more than one occasion I’ve had people tell me outright that they don’t like oaky wines. Almost exactly 100% of the time, it’s just moments before I’m about to pour a small sample of a wine called Chardonnay in their glass. I then ask what kind of wines they prefer and they say things like, “Well, reds mostly, like Syrah.”

(You can see why I really love my job. It gives me all kinds of things to talk about and at least once a week there’s a solid, robust facepalm, complete with the follow-through.)

So, while not always the case throughout the world, in BC I can safely say that all reds are oaked. They have all seen oak in some way (more on this later) even though they may not taste overly ‘oaky’. An unoaked-red wine is actually pretty harsh.

Anthony Buchanan taking a sample at Eau Vivre in Cawston.

As a cellar hand at one winery, I had the awesome task (it was really cool) of testing the wines each morning during fermentation which involved recording the specific gravity to make sure that fermentation was progressing. Each test also involved a sensory evaluation – tasting the juice as it progressed into wine. It was the highlight of my day. I would walk briskly (scamper, actually) from tank to tank and barrel to barrel with my wine thief filling up my graduated cylinder with a sample, take the measurement, and then pour off a little into my glass to see how the wine was behaving that day. Each barrel and tank had a different temperament and it was an amazing experience to follow their journey from grape juice to wine. Barrel-fermented whites were the most interesting with sweet, rounded flavours while tank-fermented whites developed a lean, brisk, and refreshing quality.

Taste testing the reds was a completely different story. While the whites evolved delicately from a sweet juice to a beautiful wine, the reds evolved from a sweet juice to a acerbic, moribund liquid that made me cringe more and more as it progressed. In short, it was hideous. That’s when I realized that red wines really, really needed the softening effects of oak to simply be palatable. In that cellar I was working with Pinot Noir, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot. Perhaps there are some reds that are a little easier to take when younger (perhaps Gamay?) but for those varieties, it was a little rough.

How oak gets into wine

It really isn’t obvious that a wine can be “oaked” (i.e. treated with oak) in many different ways. These methods vary considerably in cost from very expensive to very cheap. Usually it goes that the better the wine’s intended quality, then the more costly the wine’s production methods will be, resulting in a more expensive wine. A high quality $45 Merlot will likely see new barrels and have some quality pumps and equipment to pump it in and out along with proper environment controls (temperature, humidity, etc) in the barrel cellar. An $8 Merlot will likely have had sawdust poured into its (probably very large) tank which is then filtered quickly after a couple of months.

Um, did you say “sawdust”? Ewe…

That’s right. Barrels aren’t the only way to get that oak flavour into a wine. That’s the cheapest way but it’s certainly not the only other way. Home wine making kits use this method quite often. It’s inexpensive, efficiently quick, and the results are pretty smooth all things considered.

Oak chips (Eric Risberg/Associated Press)
Oak chips (Eric Risberg/Associated Press)

Other legal ways of imparting oak flavours into wine (in ascending order of cost): oak chips (about the size of a finger nail, they come in big bags), oak chunks (fist-sized), oak staves (leg-sized, comes in massive meter-wide tea bags), and finally barrels. New barrels are the most costly and some wineries only use them once before selling them or otherwise disposing of them. Some will use them for 3 fills (a fill can be anything from 3 weeks to 3 years) and while others will use them until they haemorrhage and cease to be able to hold a liquid of any kind anymore. Older barrels (after 3-5 fills) won’t impart many of the oak flavours to the wine anymore and are considered to be ‘neutral’ unless they are reconditioned. Barrels can be shaved (a cooper can open them and plane off a layer of wood on the inside) or have fresh oak planks installed on plastic stems inside the barrel. Shaving isn’t easy or very effective and adding staves decreases the capacity of the barrel but both can extend the life of a barrel and save the winery a lot of money.

It is important to know that when barrels are made, the inside of the barrels is heated over a fire to make the wood more flexible but also to ‘toast’ the wood (essentially, charring it). Wineries can specify how ‘toasted’ they want their barrels from untoasted to heavy toast. Most wineries I’ve worked at have used a light to medium+ range of toast on their barrels. Wood chips, staves, and planks are also toasted to some degree as well to simulate the effect of toasting a barrel.

Those oaky flavours

So what are the flavours that oak can impart to a wine? What makes a wine taste “oaky”?

stavesThe are probably tons of simultaneous chemical reactions that take place within a barrel of wine, some of which we actually know about but I’m guessing like everything else in wine, many other interactions that we don’t know about. According to the Oxford Companion to Wine (which I have been known to call “The Condescendium” on occasion but is nevertheless an excellent wine resource), lactones, phenolic aldehydes and other volatile phenols contribute a wide range of flavours from coconut, vanilla, cloves, and smoky aromas. Caramel aromas can also be imparted to the wine, a result of the wood-toasting process when the barrels were made.

I find that white and red wines react differently when oaked. Chardonnay is the probably the best know / most hated variety that is associated with oak flavours, which really explains people’s prejudice against it. (Honestly, the world changes folks – not all rosés and Rieslings are sweet and not all Chardonnays are butter-popcorn and vanilla. Please get over it.) When properly made, an oaked Chardonnay is absolutely lovely. I can’t imagine having cedar-planked salmon, the rock star of Pacific Northwest cuisine, without an oaked Chardonnay.

So while Chardonnay usually takes one for the oak team, most wine shop customers are generally unconcerned (or unaware) that the other wines that they’ve had have also seen some oak time as well. Perhaps it was in neutral barrels or perhaps a portion of it was fermented in barrel and blended back later, but there was some oak used in the production of those wines. Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, and Pinot Gris can all subtly benefit from a little wood time which probably go completely unnoticed by the “I hate oaked wine” crowd.

Get on with it

The most amazing smell in wine making is filling a brand new barrel with red wine. I distinctly remember my first barrel work day in the cellar – filling 20 barrels with freshly fermented Merlot. The whole place smelled amazing. I’d never experienced anything like it. It was unbelievable.

The point of this article though was really to draw attention to the fact that oak and wine go together very well. There’s a reason why wine makers have been using it for centuries. There is also a ton of more information about oak (French vs. American oak, why oak and not pine?, differences between chips and barrels, etc) that I did not include here otherwise this post would have gone on forever. (Perhaps a part two is required?)

So enjoy the wine for what it is. Please don’t prejudge a wine simply because it might be oaked. I know that you don’t do that because it’s obvious that you are cool, knowledgeable, Wine Country BC readers and listeners, and that I’m probably preaching to the choir here. Even still, let me know what you think. Oak? No oak? Have some winemakers gone too far with their use of oak? Bring it.

Cheers from wine country!


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