Feb 05 2009
A whole lot of discussion goes on at wine tastings about oak: how long one particular wine was aged in oak; did the ageing occur in new American oak barrels; or were they French barriques (standard casks which holds 225 litres, or 300 bottles)? But, what does it all mean?
First things first, oak is not a dirty word. It simply got a bad rap as a result of the over-oaking phenomenon that has taken place with some New World wines (translation: the addition of oak chips, which, in case you didn’t know, is simply a cheap way of adding oak flavor.)
So, before swearing off “oaky” Chardonnays or Cabernets for life (because when it’s done right you’d be missing out), let’s re-discover together all the positive aspects that oak ageing gives to a wine when done correctly. Take a look:
• Some finer red wines, which may initially have harsh flavors and tannins that need to soften, do, indeed, benefit from oak ageing.
• New oak barrels may add desirable components to the wine such as wood tannins and toasty flavors.
• Oak ageing is also necessary at times because certain chemical reactions require the presence of oxygen (which, ultimately, leads to the caramel, coffee and nut flavors in some fortified wines and liqueurs).
• American oak gives sweeter, vanilla and coconut flavors while French oak barrels impart much more subtle flavors and tannins that help a wine age better once in the bottle. Now that the terms ‘French oak’ and ‘American oak’ have a little more meaning to you, based on the flavor profiles you tend to like, you’ll be able to make more informed wine choices.
I must admit that after drinking a few too many over-oaked Chardonnays at some point, I only bought un-oaked juice for quite some time. I’m now pulling myself back from the other side and making a point to try some that remind me why oak has been such an integral part of the ageing process of wine for…well, forever. Have you had a wine lately that reaped all the goodness that the oak barrel sowed? If so, let me know!