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Aug 13, 2012 03:20 PM

Interesting article on oak . . . .

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  1. I like oak, just not too much new oak, I have recently discovered. New French oak leaves that *imprint* that the article talks about. It is frequently overdone.

    I have a vintner friend that started using older (used) Russian oak. The wine has a very "old world", rounded, taste component to it. Very different from the French oak. It has been a real learning experience for me- as I have had the chance to taste both in the various stages of aging.

    7 Replies
    1. re: sedimental

      Every type of oak -- by which I mean geographic location -- has its own flavor profile that it *can* impart into a wine. French oak, American oak, Slovenian oak, Hungarian oak, Canadian oak, Russian oak . . . And realize there is, in a sense, no such thing as "French oak," even though we speak of it all the time. Rather there is (e.g.) Nevers oak, Limousin oak, Saône, Tronçais, Allier, etc., etc., etc. There's no such thing as "American oak." But there is Wisconsin oak, Missouri oak, Cumberland Gap oak, Northern Minnesota oak, Appalachian oak, etc., etc. And Oregon oak is a different species entirely.

      Then, each and every cooper (that is, barrel maker) adds their own flavor profiles, depending upon how the barrel is made. Kiln dried? Air dried? For how long? Thin stave? Thick stave? Capacity? Shape? (Even if Bordeaux and Burgundy barrels are both 225L in capacity, there is a difference in surface area exposed to wine.) Toasted, or not? If toasted, to what degree? Light toast? Medium? Heavy? Are the heads toasted?

      So you can have, for example, an Allier oak barrel made by Tonneliere Radoux and an Alier oak barrel made by François Frères, and the character and flavor they each impart to the wine, respectively, will be different from each other.

      By using different woods, and from different coopers, a winemaker can "layer in" the type of flavor profiles desired, and avoid the ones not wanted.


      A very famous winemaker in the Napa Valley once said, "If you want oak, chew a toothpick. If you can taste the oak, it's too much!" Of course the other side of that is the really oaky Napa Valley Chardonnay that many consumers seem to like.

      My theory is that oak is a spice: without it, something seems lacking. But just as with salt -- if the first thing you taste in a restaurant is the salt, the chef used too much -- if the *first* think you taste is oak, it's too much.


      1. re: zin1953

        Interesting. Do you know, when they use oak *chips* -do they use American white oak?
        I think they toast the chips first. Small (and I mean tiny) winemakers around me were using chips more when barrels got so pricey. Then they discovered purchasing used barrels from misc countries. Thank goodness because the wine suffered IMO when using chips.

        1. re: sedimental

          OK, wines AGE in oak. Oak chips do not age the wine; they flavor it. You can get all sorts of chips -- French, American, Slovenian, etc., etc. But anyone who replaces aging wine in a barrel with flavoring wine with chips is doing their wine an incredible disservice.

          Think of winemaking like making soup. You take a big stock pot and fill it with water; chop up veggies, and toss 'em into the pot. Are you making soup? No. (Forgot to turn the gas on.) That's akin to storing wine in stainless steel.

          OK, so you turn the gas on, and the water gets hot, and the veggies cook as the water simmers. This is akin to aging your wine in wood.

          But -- again -- something is missing. Salt, pepper, herbs, and spices. That is akin to using new (or 1x-2x used) oak. The wood adds aromatics and flavors to the wine, like herbs and spices to a soup. But too much salt . . . right?

          An old barrel can still cook the soup -- uh, I mean, age the wine, but it won't add the "herbs and spices," so to speak.This is why virtually every winery has oak of various ages/uses. New oak adds a lot of "herbs and spices"; older barrels, less.

          Using chips is like tossing a tea bag into that stock pot when you forgot to turn on the gas. The water will taste like tea, and so will the (still raw, uncooked) veggies. In other words, chips will flavor the wine, but the wine remains "unaged" (as in held in stainless, rather than aged in oak).

          1. re: zin1953

            Well, it makes sense why I really like the complexity of a local "boutique" winery near me. I know it is the oak adding the roundness and complexity to the reds there- although I don't "taste" it (as "oak-y"). They use many different barrels (they impress me for such a tiny place). It is sort of a "euro style", kind of rustic styled wine with an earthy taste. I thought it was just the grape blends at first, then I realized it was the oak component.

            I am paying more attention now because I realized that (for me), as I prefer aged wine, I seem to taste oak a bit differently and have stronger preferences than my fellow tasters -tasting from the same bottle. I never gave the barrel aging/type much of a thought before but I will now. Thanks for the article.

            1. re: sedimental

              It, of course, isn't as simple as I've described, but I hope that it's provided a rough idea . . .

              Some wines are best with no wood; other wines NEED wood . . . but (IMHO) everything in moderation. One final example.

              You remember that famous Napa Valley winemaker that I quoted above ("If you want oak, chew a toothpick")? Well, he also said "If you can taste the oak, it's too much." OK, so ***personally*** I happen to agree with his first quote, and disagree with his second. That's how I came up with the "soup" and "herbs-and-spices" analogy, which I use in the wine classes I teach. For me, it's not a matter of "if you can taste the oak . . ." but rather a matter of the oak dominating the wine -- if the ***first*** thing you taste is the oak . . .

              That said, this same winemaker (someone I used to work for), participated in a wine tasting I put together for the winery's senior staff. Among other wines were two bottles of a 1974 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon "reserve." One bottle was the finished, commercial release. The other was bottled straight from the stainless tank after fermentation, but before any wood aging. In tasting the two wines side-by-side, the winemaker said, "And now you know why we age wines in oak."



              1. re: zin1953

                I find oak the must frustrating component to deal with when tasting young wines. It can be overwhelmingly to me (say certain White Burgundies or Napa Cabs) to the point where I can't taste beneath it, and yet I know at least for me, many of the flavors I find unpalatable will integrate or disappear in a year or so.

                With other elements that change with time, the fruit, acidity, tannins etc. I can predict/see where it's going, but with oak I have a lot of trouble.

                1. re: goldangl95

                  >>> . . . and yet I know at least for me, many of the flavors I find unpalatable will integrate or disappear in a year or so. <<<

                  Or . . .the fruit fades, and the oak gets more dominant. ;^)