When I took my last class at Arterra on Understanding and Perceiving Wine, there was a good bit of discussion on oak and the influence of oak on wine, and that oak can often be used to mask faults in the fruit. But our good friends at Wine Folly are insisting that oak is an essential part of good wine. Let’s dissect this, shall we?
In the discussions of why they feel oak is so important they talk about the toasty coconut and vanilla flavors the oak adds to the wine. Now, these can be very pleasant flavors from time to time in a wine. However, most wine is perfectly fine without it. For whites, I actually prefer not to have those flavors mucking things up in the wine, especially a chardonnay – I prefer the crisp acidity of the fruit itself – the apple and pear flavors that tend to come through before it gets altered. I find that most white wine I like has not spent much, or any, time in oak at all. And good red grapes can be plenty powerful on their own, depending on the blend or the strength of the growing year for the specific varietal. (see Verdot, Petit for information on how a strong wine needs literally no additives to make it great).
The article goes on to discuss oak alternatives, since brand new French Oak barrels are extremely expensive (because they’re in high demand and must be shipped) and you waste a lot of the oak surface area to air, not grape juice. They talk about staves as an alternative in a tank, as the juice touches all sides of the staves and gets full treatment from it, which seems more economical and eco-friendly.
I learned at the seminar I mentioned above that some folks used oak chips and oak powders that they then strain out (or chemically remove from the wine…. ewww). Again, the oak flavoring isn’t essential unless you’re deliberately trying to emulate a big California or French wine. You know I feel strongly that here in Virginia we can do really special things without trying to copy others, and neutral barrels are just perfectly fine.
So look for those hints of oak flavors in your next wine and see what you think – is it required, or is a good, crisp, clean wine that was done in a stainless steel tank, bringing out the flavors in the grapes and soil just as good, if not better?