Is it the wood that makes it good?

There’s nothing more depressing than being presented with a winemaker’s ‘top cuvée’, usually their biggest investment from their vineyards’ best grapes, only to find yourself breathing in a glassful of oak-saturated unpleasantness. While you can just about detect some decent, well extracted fruit in the background, it’s all but been drowned out in a wave of tarry new oak.

The use of wood in wine maturation can be a wonderful thing, but it can also be a disaster. It seems in recent years as though the influence of wood in some wineries has gotten a little out of hand, so instead of it adding a warm edge to soften and harmonise a wine, it turns it into a tarry, pungent stew that makes you think more of French polishing than fermented grape juice. And this is no good for anyone.

Oak wine barrels at the Robert Mondavi vineyard in Califoria, quietly working their magic (or mayhem) on their vinous contents. Pic: Sanjay Acharya

Certainly, the influence of oak barrels in wine is nothing new. Being watertight and relatively malleable, oak has been used for centuries to store wine. Over the years, as winemaking (and wine drinking) became more sophisticated, people realised that keeping wine for longish periods in oak actually changed it – often for the better. The flavour of oak has a natural affinity with wine, bestowing on it complex compounds which enhance and unify the wine’s character. Oak’s natural properties even have a purifying effect, helping to gently clarify and stabilise a wine, while deepening its colour and softening its texture.

The problem with using oak to influence wine is that it’s quite a complex process, and an increasingly expensive one. In their Natural Wine Manifesto, le Cave de Pyrene state that ‘oak is the servant of wine, not its master’. A worthy philosophy of course, but the problem lies in mastering the oak itself so that it doesn’t dominate the wine.

There are many variables for the winemaker to consider, all of which affect the character of the finished wine. Size and age of the oak barrels is of paramount importance (the older the barrels, the less influence they have); how long the wine is kept in the barrel is vital; how heavily the barrel is ‘toasted’ (barrels are charred with fire to brown the inside and lessen or increase the flavour the oak imparts); and how long the wood has been seasoned (left to dry) before it was made into barrels, all determine what influence the wood will have on the wine, and all need to be rigorously controlled.

A new oak barrel being toasted before finishing

A new oak barrel being toasted

While there are many different types of oak available, the most popular today are those from France and America. Oak from central Europe is increasingly popular –particularly in Italy – due to its quality and price. American oak (Quercus alba) is a fast growing and wide grained white oak that tends to impart appealingly sweet vanilla and coconut flavours into a wine due to its intensity of aromatic compounds (as much from the oak itself as the difference in preparation of the wood for barrel making in America). Tight-grained and slow-growing French oak (Quercus petrae), on the other hand, tends to impart less of a pronounced ‘flavour’ than American oak, but also far more natural tannins and other complex compounds like methyl-octalactone, phenols and volatile aldehydes, all of which effect the wine’s character as it comes into contact with the barrel.

Perhaps the easiest way to understand the influence of the two types of wood is a simple taste/aroma test. Open a bottle of youngish Bordeaux and a Rioja crianza and compare the wines. Obviously they are two very different wines made of different terroirs, grapes and winemaking practices, but in general terms, Bordeaux wines are aged in French oak, and Rioja in American (or a mixture of the two). While it’s not the most scientific test, chances are you will detect a far more ‘classic’ oak influence in the Bordeaux, with notes reminiscent of cigar boxes and pencil shavings. With a very modern Rioja, the American oak is often fairly dominant and you’ll find those sweet vanilla and toasted coconut notes in abundance.

I guess the thing with oak, ultimately, is that a little goes a long way. However, if winemakers are to master the subtleties of oak’s influence, they need to experiment. Just as long as we consumers aren’t their guinea pigs. Complaints about heavy-handed oak treatment are something I hear a lot. So how do you feel about it? Do you enjoy the waft of raw toasty oak when you put your nose into a glass of wine, or do you prefer any oaky component to be just another element to the wine’s profile, something your nose and taste buds needs to seek out rather than be bombarded with? I know where I stand, I just hope I’m not in the minority. Altogether now: ‘wine before wood!’


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