Thursday, August 31, 2017

My Wine is Too Oaky!

Oak in wine is like salt in food. It may enhance the flavor. But if you can taste it, you probably have too much of it. - A paraphrased but insightful observation of my wine class instructor.

My Oak and I
Oak in wine is indeed a controversial topic. When wine is in contact with oak, aromatic compounds from the oak are introduced to the wine. While there is no accounting for taste, wine geeks often argue about whether a wine is overoaked. That said, many of us are glad that the days of oaky California Chardonnay are behind us.

While there are different types of oak used for barrels (and in fact different types of wood), the two best known are French oak and American oak. Generally speaking, French oak tends to add subtle spiciness and silkiness to the wine while American oak tends to impart a stronger and sweeter flavor that is reminiscent of vanilla.

There are of course other factors that contribute to the influence of oak to the wine. For instance:
  • Toast level - higher toast leads to stronger flavor
  • Coarseness of grain - open-grain barrel releases aromatics sooner, and tight-grain releases aromatics later
  • Barrel size - higher ratio of oak surface area to volume of wine results in more contact
  • Time in barrel - more time in the barrel leads to extended contact
  • New vs neutral barrels - newer barrels have more aromatic compounds
Wine aging in new French oak barrels in Burgundy
However, an often overlooked benefit of oak barrels is that they introduce a small amount of oxygen to the wine (known as micro-oxygenation) during maturation. Oxygen is critical for the polymerization of phenolic compounds to stabilize the color and improve the quality of the wine. Recent research even suggests that fermenting wine in oak barrels leads to a better quality wine, but that requires another level of maintenance for the wineries.

Now back to the question, when is a wine too oaky? It just depends on how much you like the taste of oak in your wine.

Personally, I find the sweet vanilla flavor imparted by American oak detracts from my enjoyment. I tend to like my red wine silky with nuanced spices and leather notes. I also like older well-made reds and would forgo fruitiness for complexity. In fact, my favorite red wines are often aged in Slavonian oak, known for its tight grain as well as lower aromatics and tannins level. Any guess as to the wine?

My Verdict: If you are like me, you probably prefer the silky soft tannins that result from barrel aging but could go light on the aromatics. Then, depending on the grape varietals, keep an eye out for wine made in French oak (or even Slavonian oak). However, if you like stronger flavors, particularly of vanilla, then maybe American oak is more to your liking. Check out the technical sheet of your favorite wine and see what oak is used and for how long. There's always much to learn!