Vino and oak

I had a former student of mine come by the shop and ask me about "oak" in wine. He also asked me about tannins and harshness in wine and wondered what oak "did" to wine, as well as what tannins "do" to wine. I thought I'd share a bit of wine flavoring with you as I did with him and see if we can't see what these two very important taste sensations really mean in a glass of wine. Here we go.

Oak is a very fascinating subject when we are talking about wine or, for that matter, distilled spirits. I will not go into the varieties and types of oak or oak treatment, but will give you an overview of what occurs when wine is subject to oak treatment.

Unlike distillates, oak is not burned or charcoaled. Oak for wine can be lightly treated to impart different flavors for wine, but the burning of oak (inside of the barrels) are what give distillates, such as whiskey or Scotch, their amber or brown colors and a variety of autumnal flavors. All distillates are clear until subject to this charred barrel; all wines are truly varietal with very little going for them (with some notable exceptions) but the complexities of the grape itself. It appears that oak treatment of wine brings out many "hidden" flavor components that would otherwise remain dormant in many wines.

This thought of bringing out hidden flavors by subjecting the wine to oak is many times a source of argument in the wine world. There are those who feel that oak barrels or the fermentation of Chardonnay in oak actually hides the inherent spiciness and subtleties of Chardonnay and should be left out of the process altogether.

There are wineries, such as Patrick Ryan in Washington state, that produce an oakless Chardonnay called "Naked Chardonnay," which does quite well in the white wine world. There are also those who feel that the use of oak in many white wines has been overused to a great extent and find these "oakey" wines to be very difficult in the world of cuisine. These folks feel that oaked wines or over-oaked white wines are very difficult to pair with subtle dishes, such as grilled or steamed seafood.

The other big "problem" facing the oak is the fact that no-oak controversy is the overall "sameness" associated with Chardonnay because of the use of oak. It appears that the no-oak crowd hates the idea that so many California Chardonnay taste the same by the use of the same type of oak treated the same way learned at the same university. I remember being a guest judge at a private Chardonnay tasting in California some years ago and had to admit that, after just a few Chardonnay from Sonoma, the wines began to taste eerily the same! The controversy rages on.

Oak can and does impart tannins to wines. The newer the oak, the more the tannins can be felt on the palate and the newness of the oak on the nose, as well. Winemakers have to be very careful with new oak as to not impart too much oak too quickly to red or white wines.

Red wines will, for the most part, benefit from some oak treatment, as the tannins will give a red wine more of a backbone and allow the wine to last in the cellar longer than if the wine were not subject to oak treatment. Oak (also called "wood") is a wonderful marriage between many red wines and the flavoring of oak. This integration of red juice and well-placed oak can and does produce wines of fabulous intensity and length and only through this wonderful blend of juice and oak can this magic happen. Red wines intended for the cellar almost always see oak of some sort before being bottled, as this is both a traditional approach to fine winemaking and makes perfect sense on the palate.

Well, there you have it! See you next week with some Thanksgiving wine ideas!

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