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Love it or hate it, oak is important in wine!

Dec 12, 2020

Here are 5 facts to know …

The regret is not only that many winemakers overdo the treatment of oak, so that the wine tastes more of the barrel than the grape, but also that we consumers expect the wine to taste more like wood than that with fruits.

This is not a criticism against the oak. Almost all the best wines in the world see the oak tree in some way, before reaching the end of a bottle. Here are five facts to know how oak influences the taste, quality and price of the wines you like.

Oak adds flavor

You can taste the oak in your wine. The influence of the oak is more pronounced when small barrels are used, because more wine is in contact with the wood. These are the types of barrels that you usually see when visiting wineries. These barrels usually contain about 225 liters, or 25 boxes of wine, although the sizes vary slightly.

Oak gives spicy flavors – cloves, nutmeg (wood spice), vanilla. Barrels are made by treating the staves with fire, and wine producers can order light, medium or heavy “toasts” to accentuate the flavors. Wine critic Robert Parker described the taste as “pain grillé” or grilled bread, perhaps because, well, everything tastes better in French.

American oak is a different variety than French, with a different grain from wood, so it conveys different flavors, like coconut and dill. Hungarian oak is known for its nutty flavors. All of these flavors are more prominent in new barrels.

Carvalho adds structure

Oak barrels have tannin, which penetrates the wine as it ages. Tannin is that astringent sensation on the palate that makes your mouth dry or makes your teeth itch. When properly integrated into the wine, it infiltrates itself as the taste diminishes. Exaggerated, it comes to life like a baseball bat (as in: wine should not taste like a tree). Tannin helps aged wine: it slows down over time as the wine softens. It is more noticeable in red wines, but you can also feel tannins in some white wines, especially those aged in barrels or fermented in their skins. Grape skins, seeds and stems also add tannin to wine, but the influence of oak is the most noticeable.

The contribution of oak to the structure of a wine can be more subtle than tannin. Fermented and aged wines in larger barrels or oak barrels benefit from limited exposure to air as they age. And because winemakers don’t really want their wines to taste like trees, they use older or “neutral” barrels to add flavorless structure. That is why you may hear some wine producers “argue” about the mixture being aged in new barrels versus old barrels.

And, of course, it makes economic sense to reuse barrels, because. . .

Oak is expensive

French oak barrels, the most awarded, are the most expensive, depending on their price on the quality and treatment of the wood. American oak barrels cost less, they are usually cheaper. Prices vary, of course, and the global increase in demand for wine and the growth in the number of wineries in recent decades have increased prices.
The selection of the barrel is very important.



There are “oak alternatives”

Wine producers can add oak flavors without the expense of barrels. Oak shavings can be macerated in wine as they age in stainless steel tanks, or oak sticks can be suspended in wine for flavor.

Liquid oak extract can also be used. That’s why your $5  chardonnay or cabernet can have an oak flavor.

Flavoring wine in this way and making it delicious can be an art of its own. But wine producers use these shortcuts because we, the consumers, believe that wine must taste like a tree or, at least, oak. It doesn’t have to be that way, so we must remember that. . .

There are alternatives to oak

There is a counter-movement that sees oak as an additive, something unnatural for wine. Stainless steel tanks are relatively new to the wine timeline and emphasize the freshness of complexity. In the Familia Zuccardi, oak was practically banned from the family’s new winery in the province of Mendoza, in the Uco Valley, Argentina, in favor of real fermentation and aging in barrels made with local materials. Clay amphoras are preferred by winemakers who try to adapt ancient techniques to the modern palate.

So explore and pay attention to what the winemaker – or the label – tells you about the wine you are enjoying.

Source: Dave McIntyre / The Washington Post

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