Why Oak? | The Jewish Week | Food & Wine

Why Oak?

Why Oak?

Courtesy of Gerard Prins

L’chaim explains why your wine was probably aged in an oak barrel

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At first glance it would seem unlikely that the wood from a tree and the fruit of the vine would have such a longstanding relationship. While both oak barrels and wine are ultimately made from plants, they are cultivated, harvested, developed, and utilized very differently. And without oak, the wide world of wine would be very different.

Thousands of years ago, at least as far back as Roman times, wood barrels made of oak began to enter the wine world—initially just for transport, but then eventually, over the centuries, for wine production too. After all, oak is strong and durable yet relatively pliable, and the shape of the barrel makes it easy to roll from one place to another. Barrels were also significantly easier to handle and less breakable than clay amphorae.

Before long, it became evident that certain goods like wine could benefit from being stored in oak barrels. Thus, over time, oak proved itself to be the best material for barrels in which to age wine and distilled spirits and has remained an indispensable part of winemaking ever since. Most traditional wine producing areas use oak extensively, while a few famous ones, like France’s Chablis region, utilize little or no oak.

Oak can transform wine, adding depth, flavor, and complexity. Oak does this interactively due to its complex chemical compounds which contribute their own flavor or textural notes to both red and white wines. Some of the more familiar notes that oak can impart include vanilla flavors, sweet and toasty aromas, tannins, and notes of tea and tobacco. It can also contribute an overall structural complexity.

Oak barrels are semi-permeable, so they concentrate flavors by introducing controlled evaporation and oxidation to the wine, allowing a small amount of oxygen to enter through the staves. This softens and matures the flavor profile.

There are hundreds of species of oak, though the wine world mostly uses American white oak, French oak, and Eastern European oak. American oak characteristically adds some vanilla and its oakiness is more obvious while the European varieties have a more subtle influence.

The manufacturing process of making barrels —the toasting or firing of the barrel interiors—varies depending on the species of oak and the desired effect it is to have upon the wine. Each method and variable aspect of manufacture can impart something different to a maturing wine. Since barrels are handmade, they are invariably expensive. It is not uncommon for winemakers producing “volume” or cheap wines to use alternative methods to impart some of that oak aspect to their wines. For example, some wines are “oaked” by adding wood chips to the wine that is otherwise resting in non-reactive stainless steel or concrete containers.

Even these “cheating” methods, however, require some discerning judgment. Indeed, deciding how to proceed and just how much and what sort of oak influence to impart depends entirely upon a winemaker’s skill and experience.

Furthermore, not all wines benefit from oak, especially the more delicate grape varietals. There are many white wines whose flavors would be adversely affected by the wood. For example, the injudicious use of oak with chardonnay resulted in many bottles tasting like wood pencils rather than wine. As a consequence, a number of winemakers are releasing more “unoaked” chardonnay that expresses more clearly the underlying nature of the varietal.

A nice example of an unoaked chardonnay is the Abarbanel, Batch 30, Unoaked Chardonnay, Pas d’Oc, 2015 ($15; mevushal): an enjoyable, straightforward chardonnay sourced from the Les Chemins de Favarelle single vineyard in the Aude River Valley of the Languedoc, with clean and inviting notes of citrus and pear, some lovely spice, nice balancing acidity, and an agreeably creamy mouth-feel. Refreshing.

For a great contrast, consider the oak-embracing Israeli Domain du Castel, “C” Blanc du Castel, Judean Hills, 2014 ($50): a big, rich, creamy, oaky chardonnay made in the style of Burgundy—fermented in French oak barrels and aged sur lie (“on the lees”, i.e., with the dead yeast particles in the barrel) for nearly 12 months with frequent batonnage (‘stirring of the lees’ to increase extraction from the lees). This is bright and balanced with a buttery aroma, it has rich flavors of apricots, peach, apples, and lemon along with well-integrated, toasty oak and a notable minerality that all comes together seamlessly and flows smoothly into the lingering and appealing finish. L’Chaim!

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