Is Oak Over?

Thursday, 27 June, 2019
Vinepair, James Goode
When you get serious about wine, the first thing you learn to hate is the taste of new oak. It’s a childish taste, haughty sommeliers sniff, and only unsophisticated people like it...

This is a relatively new mandate. In the bad old days of the 1990s and early noughties, when American critics held immense sway over collectors’ tastes and wallets, new oak plus super-ripe fruit were paramount for red wines. Oak was a critical component of the sweet, rich style of top California Chardonnays during this period, too.

Nowadays, trend-setting somms hate those oaky, ripe wines, and the hippest winemakers avoid new oak barrels studiously. If the latter do go near them, they might choose vessels made of older oak that impart very little or no flavor. Or, they find other ways of aging wine: massive barrels called foudresfuders, or botti, which span 1,000 to 5,000 liters in size; concrete tanks and eggs; terracotta (amphorae, tinajas, or qvevri, depending on their shape and where they come from); and, lately, ceramic spheres. Sometimes, though not often, they use stainless steel.

In some ways, this is a necessary correction. We don’t want our wines tasting too much like wood because, even though some people enjoy that flavor, it gets in the way of terroir. What’s the point in choosing a good vineyard site and working hard to produce good grapes only to iron out the character of the wine by blasting it with new oak?

But, as with any trend in wine – even a correcting one – the pendulum often swings too far. Just because over-oaking is a problem, it doesn’t mean that all oak is bad. Small oak barrels, including new ones, have a role in forming fine wines.

Oak can never truly be “over.” We simply need to be smarter about how we use, think, and talk about it.

Read the full article here.