‘There’s no such thing as over-oaked wine, just under-wined oak’ is the motto of a well-known barrel broker in the US who over the years helped introduce The Wine Society to some of California’s best wine producers. His perspective is compelling and one which I believe holds true in the debate on oak use in wine.
First, let’s start with the facts. Oak is used widely in winemaking because it has a natural affinity with wine and offers a variety of functional benefits. Not least it is a practical way to store wine. But more importantly the use of oak adds flavour complexity, improves mouthfeel and softens tannin. There are many variables: the type of oak (French, American or Eastern European), the size, the age and the time the wine spends in oak. New oak brings its own flavour to wine, one that is admired by many wine drinkers, whether it be notes of vanilla, spice or coconut. There are alternatives to oak barrels, such as oak staves or chips, which will contribute the oaky flavour but these can sometimes be quite coarse and unintegrated.
‘Oak barrels facilitate a slow, gentle oxygenation of the wine, which enhances texture’
The key though is 'the use of oak’ because it takes skill and experience to achieve this successfully, to ensure that oak is bringing something additional to the quality and taste, and not overwhelming a wine. Just like in cooking, a chef can master the use of chilli but an amateur can easily overdo spicing, masking any of the flavour of the raw ingredients. Rioja is the archetypal example of oak ageing – bodegas like La Rioja Alta, CVNE and Muga are masters of this – yet the ageing requirements in Rioja (crianza, reserva, gran reserva) make no reference to wine quality. Top producers like these always reserve the very best grapes and wine to support extensive ageing in barrel. No risk here of under-wined oak.
Another benefit of oak barrels – new or old – is they facilitate a slow, gentle oxygenation of the wine, which enhances palate texture. In Alsace large old wooden casks are used by many producers for precisely this reason. The time in oak also results in a brighter, clearer and more stable wine, deepening the colour and avoiding the need for filtration. In many ways it is the most natural way to do this; it just takes patience.
Not to oak…
While many winemakers have a love affair with oak barrels, and often for good reason, they aren’t always the best option. Many of the most pure, vibrant and refreshing wines in the world are completely unoaked, and it’s thanks to the inert vessel used in their production that the fruit flavours and crisp acidity are allowed to shine through in a pristine and unadulterated way.
One of the greatest developments in winemaking technology is the stainless-steel tank: temperature control at the press of a button, easy to clean, no impact on the flavours. Concrete eggs are also fantastic oak alternatives because they promote lees movement in the wine, helping to bring layers of texture and complexity without detracting from the purity of the fruit by needlessly loading on sweet spice or coconut notes. Clay amphorae shouldn’t be sniffed at either; they pre-date oak barrels by over 3,000 years and have continued to be used for so long because they work! Both will outlive an oak barrel considerably, with far less upkeep.
‘It takes confidence for a winemaker to keep their best wines unoaked'
Oak and ego are often closely linked. I’ve tasted countless wines over the years where the first thing you notice on sniffing is a huge whiff of wood, and it’s common to find winemakers who feel like bigger is better, ignoring that it’s more about how you use it. At its worst, it’s a sort of vinification man-splaining (vin-splaining!) where any opportunity the fruit had to show what it’s capable of is trodden all over by loud, careless, and obnoxious flavours of vanilla, toast and butterscotch. Even worse is when oak is used to mask poor-quality fruit. Didn’t get it right in the vineyards? Stick it into some oak and that should take the edges off. No thank you!
Given the ever-growing importance of sustainability, is the deforestation and carbon-heavy shipping of French and American oak really worth it? I love the sense of 'honesty’ about so many of the great unoaked wines of the world. It takes confidence for a winemaker to keep their best wines unoaked; there’s nothing for the fruit to hide behind so it has to be good quality! When it’s done right there’s a vitality and energy that can be found which make the best examples such a joy to drink, and keeps the focus on what good wine should really be about – the vineyards and a true sense of place.