A Crash Course in... Oak Influence!
Let's chat all things oak! After our 'Barrel Aged Bois' tasting last month lots of super interesting bits came up...
Let's break down some barriers, dispel some untruths & get chatting about oak influence in wines! There's a lot of misconceptions around oak in wine, especially white wine, what with the ABC (anything but Chardonnay movement) stemming from poorly oaked wines that once flooded the market. Whereas in terms of red wine, oak is often seen as desirable, if not essential in some cases!
Okay so... there's lots of different ways a winemaker can choose to oak their wine and lots of reasons, too! Sometimes used to mask a less than desirable vintage, where grapes haven't fully ripened and can be astringent or acidic. Or even to elevate an already incredible wine to new levels, you may not have believed possible!!!
Easier, quicker (cheap cheap!) ways include:
- Adding Oak Essence: This is literally adding oak flavorings directly into large vats of wine, aaaaand yering... no award winning wines here...
- Oak Chip 'Teabags': sounds great in theory! These guys consist of natural oak IN A TEABAG! Chopped up and then dunked into a large body of wine...
We are of course speaking in general terms here, not going into the real nitty gritty, ins and outs of wine making- after all, I myself am most CERTAINLY not a winemaker! The more traditional, tried and true, elegant, refined but more costly way of oaking a wine falls to the trusty barrel.
- Size Matters... Now barrels can be teeny tiny (for maximum flavour extraction) or bigger than your front room (for more subtle effect), depending on the style of wine you want, choose accordingly!
- Age Is Just A Number! The age of the barrel is crucial, too. A new barrel will impart lots and lots of toasty, woody flavours in the resulting wine, whereas a 2nd/3rd/4th+ use barrel will add less and less flavour... The level of toasting on the inside of a barrel also has an effect on the final wine, light toasting will be more subtle and heavier toasting may result in warmer, caramelly notes.
- Not to confuse things any further... but oak from different countries gives different flavours. For example, the two main types of oak are French (old world, super classic) and American Oak (new world, feisty & fiery!). In general, French oak produces a more subtle, classic 'woody/cedar', spicy, silkier textured wine. Whereas American oak gives strong vanilla & coconut notes, sometimes almost cream soda esq!
(N:B! It's also popular to age wine in ex-Bourbon barrels, giving the wine an extra boozy, tobacco smoke edge. As these barrels can only be used once in the production of Bourbon, it's very common for those producers to sell their once-used barrels to wine makers! Waste not, want not!!)
There are SO many choices a winemaker has to make, but always with the final product in mind. Do they want a wine packed with vanilla, cedar & spice? or something clean, fresh, lively & young? What's the budget? Is there time to age in barrel? Are there region specific restrictions? There's SO MUCH to consider, and it's not always obvious on the label of a wine what kind of oak ageing has been used. But in general, the more expensive a bottle of wine, the more time it will have been held back and aged the 'traditional' way- in barrel. The less expensive, often the wine was made quicker & aged for a smaller amount of time, or alternative oaking techniques were used. Depending on what you're in the mood for, any one of these styles could fit the bill!
Oak in wine is a HUGE subject, and this was just the briefest of overviews, giving you an insight into the many, many techniques used in the vast world of wine.
Until next time!