WAITER, THERE'S A TREE IN MY WINE
By Elias Fernandez
You’re at a wine reception and someone nearby takes a sip of Cabernet and stuffily declares the wine “over oaked.” Others disagree countering that they like the wine’s oaky character, praising the flavors of toast and coconut. A skirmish of know-it-alls ensues.
Meanwhile you’re still stuck on the idea of oak in wine. Sure, wine ages in oak barrels, but how exactly is one affected by the other? You certainly don’t see acorns floating in your glass.
To find that tree (apparently submerged) in your Cabernet, we have to take a trip to a forest. We’ll start in France where some of the better known areas for oak are Allier, Tronçais, Never and Limousin.
Each of these forest regions offer variations on a species of white oak that is used to make oak wine barrels. Twenty years ago, when I first started making wine, oak from Limousin was still in wide use. This area is a valley floor with rich soils and lots of available water. The Limousin oak grows quickly and is loose-grained and porous. When used as staves in a wine barrel, the wood imparts fairly heavy-weight oak characteristics. These flavors include smoke, charcoal, vanilla, toast, spiciness, pencil shavings and coffee. It can mature the wine rapidly and overwhelm the fruit.
For that reason, today, winemakers most often choose oak sourced from Never, Allier and Tronçais. Especially in the case of the last two, these contain forested hillsides with thin soils and little water. The trees grow slowly and the grain of the wood is tight, offering many of the same flavors as Limousin, but with far more delicacy and elegance.
On this side of the Atlantic, American oak is sourced in states including Missouri, Minnesota, Oregon, Virginia, and Pennsylvania. Even here the French are hardly out of the picture. Most of the companies that I know of that supply American oak are French-owned.
American oak offers a flavor profile similar to its French cousins; it simply serves up bigger portions – more coconut, more vanilla, more spice and so forth. In addition, domestic oak tends to impart a few extras such as dill and clove.
Oak from one country isn’t better than from another; they offer different flavor choices. Oak is to a winemaker what spices are to a chef. And the more choices, the better. I like to age some wines in a mix of American and French oak, depending on the desired result. At other times I blend new barrels and older barrels. The longer a barrel is used the more neutral it becomes.
These days, winemakers are testing the use of oak from Hungary, Yugoslavia, and the Czech Republic. And the best way for you to learn about the relationship between wine and oak is to take a similar approach – be adventurous. Taste lots of wines and discover what flavors you enjoy most.