The scoops on oak and sweetness

As the new year dawns, it's time to set the record straight on a couple of things:

Oak should be used to complement the wine and should never be an end in itself.

Different types of oak, such as French or American, are used in the making of wine, and each imparts special flavors. The newer the oak, the greater the impact as it touches the juice. In brand new oak barrels, for example, just a few days can make a difference in the flavor. Barrels that have been used over and over become neutral and can be used for storage.

There is a huge amount of study on the use of oak, but suffice it to say, many wines, especially the larger red wines, would be shadows of themselves without the wood. But wines that are too "woody," in which the oak dominates, disguise the true nature of the grape used. I cannot tell you how many otherwise lovely wines are marred by the overuse of oak. This is particularly true with chardonnay, as even a little bit of oak, especially if used in fermentation, can damage it. This is why so many folks are put off by chardonnay and pair other white varietals with their cuisine.

Oak tannins can be harsh, and if not used properly, can destroy the delicacy of lighter red wines. They also can become detrimental to cuisine. I remember a wonderful wine dinner in Oakland some years ago where a delicately roasted lamb with rosemary was served as a second course. Out came a monster Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon with huge amounts of new oak coursing through the nose, palate and long into the finish. The lamb and the rosemary disappeared in one sip. The bouquet on the cabernet smelled like a new rolltop desk! In fact, the oak was so dominant in the wine that it went away only after gobs of dessert. The sad thing was that the winemaker, required to give a talk on his selection, went on and on about the "judicious" use of oak in wine. We all simply stared at him in wonderment.

There is no correlation between the fruit of a wine and its sweetness level.

This is one of the great misconceptions in wine appreciation and evaluation. More times than I care to divulge, the terms "fruity" and "sweet" are used interchangeably to describe red as well as white wines.

Sweet wines are those wines that have a sweet finish. There is measurable residual sugar in sweet wines and very little to none in dry wines. Wines are considered "sweet" at about 1 percent residual sugar. Under that level, the wines can be called "dry."

I have tasted, for example, very fruity muscat wines that are achingly dry. I also have tasted very fruity muscat wines that are sweet. There are gorgeously fruity zinfandels and other delightful reds that carry no residual sugar.

One generally can tell the sweetness level of wine by its alcohol content. If the wine is not late harvest (harvested after the "normal" harvest date), a level of 12 percent or higher tells us that the wine is dry. Most red wines, except for port, are dry but can be very fruity.

Some of the German rieslings can be as low as 7.5 percent alcohol, and be very sweet and fruity. Some are over 11 percent alcohol and are dry. Again, the key in white wine to measure the dryness is that alcohol disclaimer on the label. The higher the level, the drier the wine.

Lorn Razzano is owner of the Wine Cellar in Ashland. Reach him at

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