“This one smells earthy. Strong herbal and tobacco notes, too,” said the older woman sitting across from me in the winery’s tasting room. She stuck her nose deeper into her wine glass, gracefully swirled it around a few times, and then took a few generous sips. “With ripe berries and nice oak flavors. Now, this is my kind of wine.”
“Really?” asked her husband. “Because it smells very oaky to me,” he said with a look of disgust before dumping his entire glass. Oaky. He spat the word out as if it were a curse.
“Well, I really love it,” his wife said, a bit puzzled by his response. “I don’t understand what’s wrong with this wine.”
Neither did I. At the time, I was still a virgin to the whole wine scene. I had never visited a winery before, and certainly hadn’t ever been required to decipher the lingo used by wine geeks. As a novice drinker, I’d always assumed that older and fancier wines would certainly have the taste of the oak barrel in which they were aged. After all, before our tasting, the group had toured the winery’s cellars, where they proudly showed off hundreds of wine-filled barrels, lined and stacked in rows left to age for months or years. “Oaky’” seemed to clearly denote elegance and sophistication.
But the scrunched face of the husband spitting out his wine suggested that “oaky” was not always a desirable trait for a wine to possess, which came to me as breaking news.
My ignorance wasn’t completely my fault. I grew up in a house where oaky chardonnays from California were a plenty. When I was younger, my parents loved this style of wine—the excessively creamy and buttery kind, with woodchip aromas and tastes of microwave popcorn—a textbook example of what oaky wines are like. These frequently over-oaked wines have acquired a bad reputation for being too dominated by oak, but were really popular in the 80s and 90s.
Unfortunately, in an effort to make a wine more appealing to consumers, it’s not uncommon for winemakers to cheaply use oak to add flavor to a wine that otherwise isn’t very interesting or palatable. Some overuse oak barrels, keeping wine inside for extensive periods of time in order to cover bad flavors instead of using it to enhance features in the wine. Others turn to alternatives like giant tea bags of oak chips or staves (wooden planks), which are inserted into steel tanks in an effort to achieve a more elegant wine. These shortcuts and mishandling of oak are what causes undesirable oaky wines, not the use of oak itself.
Eventually, my parents grew more sophisticated and realized they were drinking oak juice, not a refined wine, and moved beyond the trend. Though by then, it was too late for me—I had already been poisoned. Just like an entire generation of young wine drinkers, my idea of what good wine was supposed to smell and taste like had been compromised by my mother’s past love of oaky chardonnay.
I wasn’t introduced to the debate over what’s considered “too oaky” until that tasting with the wine geek couple. While some people have a heightened sensitivity to oak in wine, others are just downright snobs about it. A handful of geeks, sommeliers, and bloggers think oaked wines receive too much attention and are awarded with irrationally high scores, not much unlike the ongoing debate over high-alcohol wines. They’ve reacted by trending away from oaked wines, promoting wines like “naked” or un-oaked chardonnay.
I think these arguments are overheated. There’s nothing inherently wrong with oak. There’s a reason that, for centuries, oak barrels have been used to store wine — they simply work. Barrels bleed depth and complexity into wines that modern stainless steel tanks just cannot do. In fact, almost all great wines — such as Bordeaux, Barolo and Brunello, or the reds of Rioja — are all significantly aged in oak, so there must be some valid justification for its use.
Oak barrels protect wine from oxidizing and turning into undrinkable vinegar. The wood allows the wine to breathe, exposing it to low levels of oxygen that improve its aromatics. Oak also naturally contains tannins, those chemicals found in plants that can be felt on the tongue. Being in contact with the oak barrels enables the wine to absorb these tannins, which then translates into texture and structure in a wine.
But there’s a significant difference between a wine that has been beautifully influenced by oak and one that is too oaky, which is actually a flaw in wine. Just like eating too much food can compromise a sexy figure, the use of too much oak barreling by a winemaker can cause a wine to be rather undesirable. If a wine smells like a Home Depot lumber department, tastes like a two-by-four, or if you get the sensation that a wine was left open near to a burning campfire all night, chances are it’s too oaky to be very enjoyable.
“The right amount of oak contact not only rounds out a wine and contributes to its aging potential, it exudes a sense of sophistication, lifts a wine’s aromatics, and adds a sense of the exotic in the touches of sweet spices,” wrote wine blogger, Joe Roberts, last year. “It’s like sprinkling just the right amount of baking spices onto the apple pie—too little and it doesn’t do much, too much and it dominates and therefore belittles the overall experience.”
Finding that perfect amount of oak to use is no easy task, and winemakers spend an incredibly long time trying to get it just right. There’s no perfect equation to follow, no one-size-fits-all regime — it’s different for every wine, and the finalized formulas are usually advertised somewhere on the label.
If you’ve ever looked at a bottle of wine, you’ve read the descriptions before: Phrases like “Aged primarily in French oak for 6 months,” or “10 months in 50% new barrels, 100% French oak” are flaunted on labels. Others are even more meticulous: “Matured in French and American oak (40% new barriques) before blended.” Thanks for the lovely details, winemakers, but what does a wine aged for 18 months in a complex blend of American and premium French oak taste like, exactly?
These descriptions mean absolutely nothing to most consumers. But they aren’t intended to be so confusing. Rather, they’re meant to hint at what the wine inside will smell or taste like. Having even a little bit of knowledge about oak’s role in winemaking can help you decipher the clues on a label, and ultimately aid in your ability to pick out wines that match your own preference.
How a wine smells, tastes and feels can all depend on the type of oak in which it was aged. There are two main types used to make barrels — French and American — and each one brings slightly different qualities to a wine. French oak — the golden child of barrels — typically imparts subtle spices and elegant, silky textures. It’s by far the most desired kind, but oak from France is also very expensive, which doesn’t always translate well for a wine drinker’s pocket.
Instead of blowing their budget on the priciest barrels, some wineries choose to use oak from America, which tends to infuse more assertive flavors into a wine for a third of the price. The more American oak used, the more prevalent aromas and flavors of vanilla, coconut and baking spices will be in the final wine.
The age of a barrel influences the wine as it ages inside as well. New, unused barrels that have never been in contact with wine before contain stronger, richer tannins, and impart more flavors and aromas than ones that have aged several cycles of wine before. But that doesn’t necessarily mean newer is always better.
“Just as important as new oak,” said Deborah Hansen, winemaker at Cougar Crest Vineyards in Washington State, “is the amount of one year old oak we use. There is still plenty of subtle oak left in a one year old barrel, even if the toasted surface has already been extracted.”
Lately, I’ve noticed some unusual descriptions of barreling on labels — odd combinations of French and American oak at a variety of ages — many of which I’ve really been enjoying. I loved the 2010 Chateau Ste. Michelle Indian Wells Cabernet Sauvignon I tasted recently, which spent time aging in 33% new American and 18% new French oak and the rest in neutral barrels, which don’t impart anything to a wine. The ratio didn’t make the wine any less pure. Instead, it seemed to give it the perfect amount of spiciness and structure, embracing the best features of both types of oak.
For winemakers, the most crucial part of choosing an oak regime is ensuring that it won’t take away from a wine’s natural elements. If oak isn’t used to enhance its best features, the result can be an unpleasant oaky mess of a wine. “Achieving balance and harmony is extremely important,” said Raymon McKee, winemaker at Chateau Ste. Michelle in Columbia Valley. “Too much new oak, or not enough new oak, can move the balance around.”
Just like everything else with wine, when the presence of oak is at harmonious levels with all other elements, it actually plays a pretty vital role in your enjoyment of it. Most people like a little oak in their wines — and there should be no shame in doing so. If I could go back to my tasting with the geeky wine couple, I’d tell the woman there should be no fuss over finding pleasure in her seemingly “oaky” wine.
I’ve selected the wines below to illustrate the many different types of oak and barreling regimes that work beautifully to enhance a wine.
Columbia Valley, Washington, 14.5% ABV, $17.99
Plenty of freshness and ripe cherry aromas, despite spending significant time in oak. Cracked pepper notes on the nose and sweet baking spaces in the mouth, with elegant toasted oak on the finish. Aged 15 months in 33% new American, 18% new French oak, and the rest in neutral barrels.
Walla Walla Valley, Washington, 14.1% ABV, $24.99
Cedar, plum and roasted nutty aromas lead into well-integrated blackberry jam and clove flavors and a generous finish with lasting tannins. Aged for over 2 years in 20% new American barrels with French oak heads.
Mendoza, Argentina, 13.5% ABV, $11.99
Dark red in the glass with smoky aromas and smells of espresso. Ripe fruit flavors are even more enhanced by a spicy, peppery finish. Aged for 10 months in 50% new barrels, 100% French oak.
Napa Valley, California, 13.5% ABV, $14.99
A great example of a chardonnay that is positively influenced by oak. Pale yellow in color with pear and vanilla aromas. Mouth-watering lemon flavors and a hint of clove on the finish. Spent seven months on the lees in 20% new French and American oak.
Ribera del Duero, Spain, 14.0% ABV, $25.99
Full of leather and cocoa aromas, this wine offers concentrated flavors of plums and baking spices, with elegant tannins. Aged 12 months in French and American oak barrels.
Ribera del Duero, Spain, 14.0% ABV, $26.99
Ruby red in color with hints of vanilla and mocha on the nose. Rich in the mouth with flavors of coffee, toasted spice and velvety tannins on the finish. Aged for 12 months in new French oak.
Illustration by Claire Jelly