The matter of oak

Part One

Katalin Kiszel-Kohari - May 18, 2018

Oaky is very often used term to describe a wine. I have heard it often enough from customers saying that certain cheaper Sauvignon Blanc from the South of France is too oaky. Honestly, I am not quite sure what they really mean. I presume they just do not like it.

The chances are, for you having something oaked white from the South of France as a house wine, is almost second to none, I am afraid, if your sommelier is at least half decent at its job.

Modern wine making technics, like temperature controlled stainless steel tanks and machine harvesting are very much available at that part of the world. They are very much using them too. That makes wine cheaper, more competitive in price as well. At the moment fresh, crisp, aromatic and fruity wines are fashionable, like Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio. Rich, creamy and aged is not typically what people are looking for, so you cannot really find them as house wines.

Generally, oak barrique is very expensive. Logically, that makes the wine very expensive. The mitigating factor in price, is the place of origin: France, United States, Slovenia, Italy, Hungary and lately Russia. Although, that just makes them expensive or more expensive, if I am honest. It is still a substantial investment. You are not going to use it for your lesser wines! You want your flagship wine to get the superstar treatment. The most high-priced wines of the world are aged in small oak barrels. That is one of the reasons why your Saint-Emilion Grand Cru Classe, your Pomerol and your Mersault Premier Cru cost so much. One of the other reason is, of course, Robert Parker.

What does oak barrel add to your wine? Well, other than they are fancy of looking at, they impart flavour and aroma compounds. Vanilla, sweet spice, charred, smokey notes and caramel are some of those lovely characteristics that you can gain. The smaller the barrel the stronger the flavour is. Not for long, though. After three use, your cool looking barrels considered neutral. You can still use them, for fermentation or maturation but they are not enriching your wine anymore with the above mentioned characteristics. So you buy a new set of barrels and try to sell off the old ones for the fraction of the price. To distilleries for example.

So oak can enhance, complement the flavour and bring interesting qualities to the wine.

Having said that there are alternatives for oak barrels, like oak chips, staves, shavings or cubes with different levels of toast. These are much cheaper alternatives which can be used perfectly legally in many wine region with restrictions.

Photographs by The Tannin Addict.