Oak is a funny thing in the wine world: it’s an important piece of winemaking’s most traditional methods, employed in old-school regions ranging from Burgundy to Barolo, but in recent years the general association has shifted toward the New World, especially California and Australia. The mere mention of an oaked or “oaky” wine tends to divide the world of wine drinkers right down the middle; we either love those toasty, buttery, cola-spice notes we’ve been told are part and parcel with oak use, or we run screaming, empty glasses in hand.
As it turns out, though, it’s not so simple. Chances are, even if you’re a die-hard oak hater, you’ve had a few wines that have seen some oak at some point in their lives that you really loved. Vice versa for you, Mr. Oak-tastic. It all comes down to the kind of the oak the winemaker uses, how she uses it and for how long.
Why Oak, Anyway?
Ultimately, we have the Romans and Gauls to thank for the oak thing. A quick history lesson: Until the Romans invaded what we know now as France, their wines were stored and transported throughout the Empire in clay amphorae — big, clay pots. The farther the Empire expanded, however, the heavier those pots seemed. Lo and behold, the Romans noticed the Gauls storing their beer in oak barrels made from the abundant forests of Central France and thought, “We could do that.” Oak’s a relatively soft wood, so it needs minimal toasting to make it malleable enough for cooperage. Bam! Veni, vidi, vini.
Today traditional French and Italian winemaking uses oak barrels to store wine during fermentation, maturation or both. Allowing the wine to hang out in these barrels for a period of a few months to a few years benefits the resulting wine in ways stainless steel or cement tanks (the next-most popular choices for fermentation vessels) really can’t achieve without a lot of technology. (Note: There’s a lot of cool stuff that happens in barrel, it’s true, but it doesn’t mean barrel-aged wines are automatically superior to those made in stainless or cement, and don’t let anybody tell you otherwise.)
How Oak Barrels Work
First, let’s not forget that oak barrels are made of oak, and oak is wood. Wood by its nature is a porous material. Even in its tightest grain form, wood allows microscopic quantities of oxygen to pass through the barrel and into the wine inside. This is a process wine folk fancily refer to as to microoxygenation, and it’s pretty important for a few reasons, some having to do with alcohol content, some with acidity and tannin, some with the development of aromatic and flavor compounds as molecules get together and/or break up over time. Ultimately, however, this little bit of exposure to oxygen is what will help your wine transform from awkward teenager to renaissance man. It will also give your wine some of its secondary notes — meaning aromas and flavors that go beyond just primary notes of fresh fruit.
Second, oak barrels are toasted during cooperage to warm up the staves (the smaller pieces of wood that make up the whole barrel), making them more malleable and ensuring that they keep their shape once they cool. The toasting of the barrel caramelizes the natural sugars in the oak’s grain. Ultimately, this process is what will give your wine those more distinctly savory aromas and flavors like toast, butter, toffee, chocolate and baking spice.
Third, there’s definitely a level of romance associated with the traditional and cultural heritage honored by making wines with oak barrels. In some European regions, the use of oak barrels is required in order for the winemaker to be able to label wine with the name of the region in which it was made. The technology exists to create wines that seem like they’ve spent 18 months in oak barrels buried deep in a cellar in the Piedmont when they really hail from a warehouse outside Santa Barbara, but what’s the point of that?
An Argument Against Oak
First of all, oak barrels ain’t cheap. New French oak barrels start at around $800 a pop and can creep into the $1,500+ realm pretty quickly. For one barrel. American oak is slightly less expensive, with a starting rate of around $400 per barrel. Even the smallest producers need between 15 to 30 barrels to produce enough wine to make a living. If you’re planning to use a barrel only once and replace it every year — a practice that maximizes the oak’s influence on the resulting wine — your overhead’s going to skyrocket pretty quickly.
Second, not all wines are supposed to be oaked. The complexity, depth and richness oak treatments tend to produce in wines aren’t always what the winemaker is going for, especially in the case of crisp white wines, rosés and fresh reds that are meant for easy, approachable enjoyment. Wines like Beaujolais Nouveau, old-world Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling rarely see oak.
French vs. American Oak
This is where the real rift in the oak conversation lies. It’s true that there’s a difference between French and American oak. French oak tends to impart subtle herbal notes like rosemary, chamomile and black tea, while American oak has headier notes of dill, vanilla and clove. Ultimately, however, the big difference between American oak and French oak treatments is the toast of the barrel. American oak is considered a more raw, harsh, naturally tannic oak than French oak. To help tame that rustic texture, American oak barrels are usually much more heavily toasted than French oak barrels, meaning those smoky, buttery, cola-spice notes are going to be more pronounced in wines aged in American oak. Additionally, since the cost is lower, it’s a more common practice with New World winemakers (using American oak) to use their barrels only one or two times before replacing them, meaning the intensity of those aromas and flavors is kept in overdrive as often as possible. Old World winemakers, on the other hand, tend to use their barrels many times, only replacing as the barrels are no longer fit to store wine.
So, if you think you hate oaked wines, you might actually hate wines matured in heavily toasted, American oak barrels. It’s entirely possible that your favorite white Burgundy spent most of its life in old French oak barrels. Don’t want to take our word for it, though? Here are a few wines from opposite ends of the spectrum for you to explore at home. Try one from each category, preferably side by side.
Mostly New World, Outgoing, “Oaky”
2012 Pahlmeyer Chardonnay
Napa Valley, California: It’s an investment, but there are few producers doing this classic style of buttery, hazelnut-laden Chardonnay from Napa as well as Pahlmeyer does it. If you’re going to go head-first into new oak territory, these folks should be your guide. For the cost of a 101-level course textbook, it does just as much educational heavy lifting for your palate.
2013 Owen Roe “Sharecropper’s” Pinot Noir
Willamette Valley, Oregon: Owen Roe has been contributing to the conversation surrounding the growth and identity of oak-forward New World-style wines since 1999. All of the ripe berries, spice and warmth you could want from Pinot Noir.
2002 Lopez de Heredia “Viña Bosconia”
Rioja Alta, Spain: Surprisingly, new American oak’s best ambassador is on the wrong side of the Atlantic. Rioja has been capitalizing on American oak’s outgoing expression for decades, and Lopez de Heredia is a standard-bearer for the region; not only does the family’s long history in Rioja guarantee skill and prime vineyard holdings, but they have their own cooperage to ensure that custom fit.
Mostly Old World, Old School, “Neutral” Oak
2008 Domaine Rollin
Pernand-Vergelesses, Burgundy: Again, an investment, but one well worth it. Chardonnay from one of Burgundy’s most highly regarded, serious producers. Old barrels, old vines, old school. Set this up next to Pahlmeyer and let your palate be the judge.
2012 Fausse Piste “Garde Manger”
Columbia Valley, Washington: A Syrah-based wine from Jesse Skyles, the protégé of the aforementioned Owen Roe. Though the grapes are different, Fausse Piste is working with a similar climate and what’s referred to as “neutral”, or older oak barrels. Deep fruit and a kiss of warm spice.
2004 Chateau Musar
Beqaa Valley, Lebanon: If we’re pitting wild card against wild card, the only estate we’d ever put next to Lopez de Heredia for the combination of oak treatment and bottle age would be Chateau Musar, Lebanon’s cult wine darling. A blend of Consult, Cabernet, Syrah and a few secrets, it’s ripe plum and nuanced spice for days.