Are Oaked Wines Naff*?

oak_wine.jpg This article appeared in the June 2007 edition of Connections Magazine (Ireland) People who know nothing about wine – no, not you, I'm talking about people who think Chardonnay is a brand name – somehow know enough to say “I like a dry wine” even if they don't. Yes, the underlying insecurities that seem to cluster around wine will cause otherwise trustworthy people to lie. My own mother - whose favorite wine is White Zinfandel (ouch! God knows I tried) – will insist on her preference for dry wine even though each sip of White Zin betrays it. Is sweet wine really that embarrassing? Will drinking it get you banished from polite society? Funny enough, the same mysterious forces have been conspiring against oaked wines. Walk into any wine shop and you'll see quite a few labels boasting “unoaked” – fully 10% of all white wines in Oddbins here in the UK now make such a claim. Some people even believe that they're allergic to oak in wine although it hasn't been identified as an allergen by the medical community. Is oak in wine really that bad? Has it suddenly become naff? montrachet.jpgIf it has, someone forgot to tell the fine wine community. Practically all of the world's finest red wines and many of its whites are nearly as dependent on oak as they are grapes. This centuries old relationship shows no sign of slowing down. Still, at the lower end of the price spectrum clumsily oaked Chardonnay, the buttery vanilla toffee wines that were fashionable in in the 80's and 90's now seem as in style as a mullet haircut. Since Chardonnay is sometimes considered the ultimate oak vehicle, the backlash against it in favor of racier grapes varieties such as Albariño, Riesling and Pinot Grigio hasn't helped. Neither has the real wine movement which emphasizes organic farming and minimal intervention winemaking. Although oak is mainly associated with the flavours they impart upon a wine, it has been a storage and shipping container for thousands of years. The Celts are generally credited with coming up with a liquid-tight barrel in 300 BC, which is know to have been used for wine by at least the 2nd century BC. It's easy to see how they replaced terra-cotta amphorae, being more durable and easily rolled. The flavours imparted by the barrels were simply a fortuitous by-product, especially if they were oak. Other woods, like cherry and chestnut are still used but the overwhelming favourite is oak. Somewhere along the way, it was discovered that the heat from flames used to bend the wood to form barrels provided different flavours and other characteristics, depending on how toasted the insides of the barrels became. Barrels are now toasted to order in light, medium or heavy toast. Since toasting acts as a buffer between the wine and the wood, the lighter the toasting, the more the wine will taste more directly of oak and also be highly tannic. Medium toast tends to produce more softer wines with more vanilla notes while heavy toasting really alters the wood producing clove, nutmeg, coffee and – of course – toast flavours. coconut.jpgDifferent types of oak imparts different flavours as well. Oak for wine barrels come mainly from France and the United States. French oak, with its tight grain and subtle aromatics – especially from Allier, Bourgongne, Nevers and Tronçais – are highly prized by winemakers worldwide. American Oak – as may be expected – is more bold and brash, wider grained and more aromatic. It can often be identified by a coconut aroma, which at high concentrations has been know to produce white wines that can only be described as suntan lotion or Hawaiian Tropic. Surf's up dude! Still, American oak is an essential part of great wines such as traditional Rioja (white and red) as well as traditional Australian Shiraz (Penfold's Grange). Interestingly enough, Californian winemakers are fairly mixed when it comes to using American or French oak despite the fact that French oak barriques (barrels) cost over twice as much. Flavour is not the only thing that barrels contribute to wine, especially since they are virtually flavourless after 2 to 3 uses. Older barrels are either used in conjunction with new barrels to control the flavour influence of oak or on their own for other properties. They naturally clarify and stabilize the wine, soften tannins, improve colour and very gently oxidize the wine. This gentle oxidation occurs by evaporation through the barrel which are topped up often during barrel aging. It also lowers fruitiness, producing more of a soft “old world” style wine than a fruit forward “new world” style wine, regardless if it's made in Europe, the USA, Australia or Chile. wood_chips_oak.jpgGiven the high cost of barrels and the level that much winemaking is dependent on oak, there has been much use of oak alternatives like oak chips. At 1/20th the price of barrels, they've brought luxurious oak to much cheaper wines with some disasterous results. At least in the early days. Now, with micro-oxygenation, a way of simulating the gentle, gradual oxidation that occurs in barrels, as well as with the world's highest quality oak readily available toasted to order in chip form the distinction isn't so clear. Traditionalists poo-poo the use of oak chips but modernists champion them for much better control almost regardless of cost savings. Some highly acclaimed wines use oak chips in California and Australia and as of December 2006 they're legal to use in the top level appellations in Europe. They've been used since 2004 in lower level appellations in France such as Vin de Pays and Vin de Table amidst bitter protests about the “McDonaldization” of wine. The times are changing quickly as France and Italy have lost a great deal of market share to Australia in recent years and are desperate to regain any competitive advantage. It's still difficult to tell which wines get their oak characteristics from barrels and which from chips as there aren't any labeling requirements. Indeed, few winemakers will volunteer that they're making wine with oak chips as they still conjure up little mystique regardless if they're legal or not. It's a little strange to see European governments rushing to legalize oak chips while at the same time so many wines are making a point to show that they're unoaked. The growing Real Wine movement – epitomised by the movie Mondovino – which emphasizes organic viticulture and minimal manipulations (read: less oak) in the wine making process also seems to be at odds with the legislation. Not to mention the recent popularity of unoaked white wines such as Riesling, Pinot Grigio, Chablis and New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. The reality is that oak is a useful and welcome part of wine making. So before you jump on the “I like an unoaked wine” bandwagon, remember all of the great wines of the world that are superb expressions of oak, like virtually every fine red wine, Cote d'Or Chardonnay, fine white Bordeaux and traditional Rioja. mullet1.jpg* naff [naf] Chiefly British Slang 1. unstylish; lacking taste; inferior. –verb (used without object) 2. to goof off; fool around (often fol. by around or about). —Verb phrase 3. naff off go away: used as an exclamation of impatience. —Related forms naffness, noun (definition from Dictionary.com)

A Few Good Oaked White Wines:

To get at the heart of the matter, let's try some fine often overlooked oaked whites.

Traditional White Rioja

vinatondoniablanco.jpg Lopez de Heredia Viña Tondonia Gran Reserva Blanco 1981 One of the world's finest white wines, often compared to top white Burgundy, it is very traditionally made which means it's more highly oxidized than most dry white wines. Gold in colour, it's rich, very smoky, herbal, suprisingly fruity with lightly toasted coconut and perfectly balanced acidity. A real treat and one of the last real bargains in the fine wine world. 5 stars $80 Cune Monopole Rioja Blanco 2005 This is a great introduction to traditional white Rioja. It has a nice degree of toasted coconut (from American Oak barrels) but with a fresh lemony acidity. 3 stars $13

Dry White Bordeaux

While red Bordeaux gets pretty much all of the press, a fine white Bordeaux can easily steal the show at any dinner party. New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc fans will be surprised at how well the Sauvignon Blanc in these wines take oak. 2005 Moulin des Dames Bergerac Sec 50% Sauvignon Blanc 40% Semillon 10% Muscadelle This is a very traditionally made Bordeaux-style wine. I have to say Bordeaux-style since Bergerac is not officially in Bordeaux but adjacent to it. Moulin des Dames is one of Bergerac's finest producers and this wonderful wine, with delicious white peach, subtle oak and spicy finish would compare well with a white Haut Brion. 4 stars $22 2005 Tour Leognan 65% Sauvignon Blanc and 35% Sémillon 2nd wine of Chateau Carbonnieux, one of the classified Graves chateaux known for its dry white wines. Don't let the screw top fool you – this is a serious wine. It's more obiously Sauvignon Blanc than the Bergerac with a nuanced grassiness amidst the well integrated oak. 3 stars $23

Wine Oak Facts:

WLTVCost of Average Oak Barrel: $1,130 for French Oak and $400 for American Oak Cost of new oak barrels per bottle of wine = $3.89 French $1.32 American Average cost of grapes per bottle (Napa Valley Chardonnay) = $4.30 Cost of oak chips per bottle: $0.18 Chance that a $5.00 bottle will be aged in all new oak barrels = 0% Typical percentage of new oak used in 1st growth Bordeaux: 100% Typical percentage of new oak used in top white Cote d'Or Burgundy: 30% Typical percentage of new oak used in Dominique Laurent's red Burgundy: 200% (racked from one new barrel to another new barrel) Woodchuck: A Winegeek who likes, or has a high tolerance for, a lot of Oak in his or her wine. See Beaver and Termite. (from www.compleatwinegeek.com) Always eat the cork when drinking an “oaked” wine, as the two woods bring out each other’s flavors. (Advice from Jim Boyce in China) Oak Monster: An extremely oaked wine (from Gary Vaynerchuk at Wine Library TV)
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You can't get a better corkscrew at any price. Sorry Laguiole! To enter, please leave a comment regarding your thoughts on oaked wines or cork eating. A simple "oaky doak" or "mmmm corks" will do. 3 winners will be chosen at random Monday, February 11 2008 at 12 noon EST. pulltaps-black.jpg

58 Comments

Perry G
Perry G

June 16, 2014

mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm corks!

David Gaier
David Gaier

June 16, 2014

There’s room for everyone under the oaked (or unoaked) tent. I think it’s overused on whites, espcially Chards, and by contrast a steely, clean, almost austere white Burgundy is a joy to behold. But let us not forget, too, that oak adds a lot of good things to the right wines and when done in the proper proportions, with the right level of toast, and the right balance of French and Yank, new and old.

tony vincent
tony vincent

June 16, 2014

there is a place for “da-oak” in many varieties… sauv blanc may love the stainless, but my chards SCREAM for oak!! bring on the creamy butter!

Jessica Creel
Jessica Creel

June 16, 2014

Everything in moderation I heard someone say once…same goes with oak…

Gertie Grape
Gertie Grape

June 16, 2014

My vote is with the barrique and the Barack. Oaky doaky, super duper!

Tisa
Tisa

June 16, 2014

Count me in please! ~ :) Thanks!

Patrick Ballin
Patrick Ballin

June 16, 2014

If variety is the spice of life, the spice of wine is oak. While not being a corklicking, teabag sucking total oak bloke, the idea of wine without oak seems to me to be like cooking without spice: it takes away a whole dimension of variety. I don’t want to only consume 70s style ready dinners and boil-in-the-bag fish fillets, life is so much better when you can run the range of Asian, African, Mediterranean and (yup, even) American nosh. So naff off, quercophobes.

Tony
Tony

June 16, 2014

I go with the barrique but not the Barack. After all – a decent red wine is aged and 3 years is… immature. Give me something with more refinement.

Vincent Falzone
Vincent Falzone

June 16, 2014

I wouldn’t cook without spice, winemakers should be able to oak their wines in ways that they like and the market wants to drink.

John Knuth
John Knuth

June 16, 2014

I’m with Jessica, everything in moderation. I think too much masks too much flavor. A lovely chablis wouldn’t need to hide behind 20 bags of oak chips!

Ted Nelson
Ted Nelson

June 16, 2014

Oak adds character and quality to a wine. Many of the people I run into who claim to prefer ‘unoaked’ must be following a fad as they can’t articulate what and why they have this preference.

Stan Laite
Stan Laite

June 16, 2014

Good Morning;
oak is fine if used correctly: if not the following quote ( unknown source):

" Anyone who thinks oak is a natual component of wine would probably also consider a tomato to be a vegatable"

Ray
Ray

June 16, 2014

All depends on the finished product….

GARY STAUFFER
GARY STAUFFER

June 16, 2014

As usual, moderation is the key to good balance. Vive Oak.

MVA
MVA

June 16, 2014

Don’t drink yellow chard!

Holly Wehmeyer
Holly Wehmeyer

June 16, 2014

I’m with the “moderation” crowd. Work hard, play hard, and enjoy a little oak now and then.

Heather
Heather

June 16, 2014

I’m trying to come up with something thoughtful but “mmmmmmmmmmmm cork” really speaks to me! :-)

Debbie Allen
Debbie Allen

June 16, 2014

What next, Scotch whisky is naff? Oak obviously can be used to enhance flavor – with enhance, not overpower, being the operative word.

Tom Canty
Tom Canty

June 16, 2014

Variety (like oak) is the spice of life. Vive le difference!

John Gale
John Gale

June 16, 2014

Depends on the wine. Some taste good, some taste cheap. Hokey Oaky :)

David Savi
David Savi

June 16, 2014

If I can SEE the oak in my Chardonnay, that’s too much. I wouldn’t call it Naff. Actually as a yank, I wouldn’t call anything Naff!
I lean more towards Burgundy than California, but like a well balanced glass regardless of the lumber. Unoaked is great way to taste the grape in Chardonnay.

Cheers.

Bob de Vries
Bob de Vries

June 16, 2014

Oak is great! Just taste a vintage in various barrels and notice the difference between them. Each barrel can give a unique flavor to the wine, where steel all taste the same.

A. Ray
A. Ray

June 16, 2014

NOT Naff!

Pram Acharya
Pram Acharya

June 16, 2014

We can all agree (if we all know enough) that the quality level is established in the vineyard by the quality of fruit harvested. But vinification and ageing with the correct use and application of oak barrels can make a wine style mesmerizing. We just commited infanticide by opening a bottle of 2005 Batard Montrachet from Fontaine Gagnard. Although the wine was young, it was most seductive with the intertwining flavors of citrus peel, lemon creme brulee and the creamy allspice laden oak influence. That was enough for me to endorse the use of oak.

sabrina
sabrina

June 16, 2014

Oak is a beautiful thing when handled by the right winemaker.

Jandir Passos
Jandir Passos

June 16, 2014

Oaked wines ? Well, I`m not completaly against. The fundamental question is the timming of wood which the wine stay inside oak. Sometimes spanish wines exceed on use of oak in a manner that the wine becomes “oak juice”. Employ oak in time and account correct is an art.

Steve Wilhite
Steve Wilhite

June 16, 2014

Love that oak flavor and finish.

DewG
DewG

June 16, 2014

Oak like anything else in moderation is ok.

Josie  Della Serra
Josie Della Serra

June 16, 2014

If you like older wines made the traditional way you have to have oak….. :) :) :) :) :) :)

David Buckley
David Buckley

June 16, 2014

Like so many things in life oak is both good and bad. Many of the most cherished wines in the world would not taste the way they do without oak. On the other hand, try one of those oakasauruses that has been steeped in chips or run through oak powder and it can make you want to heave, to my taste just providing a sickly sweetness. Some call it butterscotch. I call it antifreeze.

Philip
Philip

June 16, 2014

I used to love wines with chewable oak, until I discovered that it obscures the flavor of…oh yes, the grapes.

Bill Hoppe
Bill Hoppe

June 16, 2014

No Afterall Forests are Failing

sabrina
sabrina

June 16, 2014

Oak is a beauitful thing when handled by the right winemaker.

Walt
Walt

June 16, 2014

For those without proper home storage units (or cellars) yes, oak is naff. Many consumers tend to buy, bring home and drink (some don’t even make it to a domicile). For those consumers let them have screwcaps to enjoy their (our) favourite beverage unoaked and slightly sweet. That will leave more of the ageable wines in the world for those of us who can afford to wait. Fine Chablis, Montrachet and of course the reds need the added character that oak brings to the mixture. That said, I would not be too terribly offended if you offered me an unoaked chardonnay with this fruit salad…..

Jandir Passos
Jandir Passos

June 16, 2014

Exact ! Moderation is the keey and depent upon terroir, too.

Kevin
Kevin

June 16, 2014

Moderation is key

Miss Jane
Miss Jane

June 16, 2014

Oaking a white wine makes it taste like burnt coffee poured through burnt toast onto a fig newton. Not that that’s bad, but it’s what I had for breakfast this morning.

Brenda
Brenda

June 16, 2014

A little oak goes a long way…

Christine Feller
Christine Feller

June 16, 2014

Absolutely not! Whether oaked or not, these are just two different styles and both good in their own right. Sometimes I’m in the mood for a big, oaked Chardonnay to go with sausage-stuffed mushrooms. Other times, I want the raw fruit of an unoaked Zinfandel to go with a nicely aged Parmesan. There’s a place for both, oaked and unoaked. Naff, my gaff!

Paul
Paul

June 16, 2014

A little oak is a good thing but we do see more folks asking for unoaked chardonnays. I think there is still room for both camps :>)

Nancy F.
Nancy F.

June 16, 2014

I guess I am not that particular………actually, if it is wine, it’s fine!!!!

Sand Hill Vineyards
Sand Hill Vineyards

June 16, 2014

We get our Missouri White Oak barrels at McGinnis Wood Products in Cuba, Missouri. American Oak ROCKS!!!!

Merv Russell
Merv Russell

June 16, 2014

I am very new to all of this and i am still looking for the fruity tastes in many wines so keep me posted.
I like to quaff my wine now so maybe i will get some oak taste.

Menahem Fuchs
Menahem Fuchs

June 16, 2014

I’m rather partial to oaked Chardonnays – the good estates will seldom over-oak their wines

Yves Delage
Yves Delage

June 16, 2014

Oak adds longevity to wines. If only for this, winemakers should continue to use it.

Walt G
Walt G

June 16, 2014

To oak or not to oak? The heck with it; if you like it, drink it!

J_Hayden
J_Hayden

June 16, 2014

Like a termite, chokin’ on a splinter….

Hunter
Hunter

June 16, 2014

Love it or hate it, employing oak enhances many fine wines and masks the imperfections of far more.

Bob Yelle
Bob Yelle

June 16, 2014

I like oak, bring on the splinters !

Ralph M
Ralph M

June 16, 2014

Each style has it’s place. Much depends on food pairing also. I enjoy a fine wine, oak or not!

Jonas
Jonas

June 16, 2014

Traditionally the flavors imparted from oak barrels were incidental to barrel-making, itself a necessity for storing and maturing wine.

In these strange new days some very big ‘toasty oak’ flavors have become a predominant feature that people seek in soft, round wines that show very little distinctive character of the grape or the place they came from. It’s rather like having a flavor shot in your Starbucks latte, to avoid tasting the flavor of the already very mild espresso. In that analogy this is the extreme opposite of liking real single-estate artisan-roasted coffee – the same tendency generally applies to wine.

People are free to like what they like (no ‘taboos’ here folks) but what may becoming more ’los’t is the appreciation of how varietals express the land & the year they are grown. I also believe vintners may be tempted to abandon real ‘style’ in favor of more profitable ‘stun appeal’ – bold spice and fruit, low tannins and complexity. And that damn heavy oak.

Moderate oak has its place in say a fat Bordeaux, as a harmonious nuance… but too much oak seems always worse than too little for me! You can stun me, but it won’t impress me at all.

Making sense of wine barrels | Wine Country
Making sense of wine barrels | Wine Country

June 16, 2014

[…] France where the wood for the barrels originate. Some of the main forests include Allier, Limousin, Nevers, Tronçais and Vosges. The ‘N’ on the barrel indicates the wood is from the Nevers […]

Eric Lecours
Eric Lecours

June 16, 2014

Assessment of the character of the underlying wine is critical. Acidity balances strong oak flavors, extends them and integrates them. A fat New World Chardonnay with 15% alcohol tastes very different from a crisp, vibrant Puligny-Montrachet from a classic vintage with the same level of new French oak used in ageing. American oak further pushes the oak limit on the a low acid wine where the coconut and caramel notes become overly-sweet, cloying and often unpalatable.

On the other hand, openly liking oak (like residual sugar) has unfortunately become taboo. It’s like being a fan of Britney Spears, many are in denial or won’t admit to it. but sing along readily when a song comes on the radio. My wife, who’s worked in retail for years, has experienced many consumers who state emphatically at the outset, “I don’t like oaky wines.” But when poured a heavily-oaked wine, are immediately attracted.

Personally, I have a great appreciation for well-judged use of oak. It can add a dimension of luxe and complexity to a wine. Few would ask DRC or Leflaive to abandon their oak. Conversely, many Sauvignon Blanc or Chardonnay in Napa Valley tasting rooms could be much improved with less or no oak. There are wines which oak improves and those it destroys.

J_Hayden
J_Hayden

June 16, 2014

Wooo Hooo!! I’m a winner mom!!

Steve De Long
Steve De Long

June 16, 2014

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Thanks to everyone who posted a thoughtful (or not!) comment. It seems the voice of balance and moderation won over in the end. Boring for the internet but good for wine.

I hope we can all drink as well as Pram’s Batard Montrachet (vinfanicide or not). Janir’s expression “oak juice” is a definite keeper, just edging out MVA’s “don’t drink yellow Chard” and Stan’s memorable ”Anyone who thinks oak is a natural component of wine would probably also consider a tomato to be a vegetable”.

And special mention to John Gale whose write-in poll entry – Some tastes good, some tastes cheap (Hokey Oaky) – is doing almost as well as Mike Huckabee.

Pauline Morris
Pauline Morris

June 16, 2014

I enjoyed your article. I discovered the love of oaked wine in Australia early 1990’s. When i came back to Scotland it was all unoaked wines that were popular. Everyone told me to stop being a wine snob and expand my tastes. I therefor had to train my taste buds to accept different dry white wines. Unfortunately, to enjoy a good oaked wine, i either have to pay through the nose or more so, dine at very expensive restaurants (I have chosen restaurants around the wine). £33 pounds has been the dearest to date…. but well worth it, just like good sex (not the price part!!)

oakisgood
oakisgood

June 16, 2014

Oak is great because you can take the most out of your wines.
For example if you have wines fermenting the whole process with all the grapes or other fruits inside or you have a semi sweet wine, oaking it eliminates non desirable flavors and makes it smooth, and you keep the fruit flavor and sweetness controlled.
Oak accentuates some times the alcohol at the begining (6 month-1,2 years) but it gets better with the years after bottled. You can taste one bottle every year till the desired end result :)

Angela
Angela

June 16, 2014

I’m from “Oak-lahoma”….gotta love the oak!

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