Wine terms: Oak

Winespeak always includes references to oak (even the Wine Curmudgeon is guilty of this), and most of the references always seem to describe the wine as toasty and oaky. This can be quite confusing, since the relationship between wine and oak is not obvious.

How can something made with grapes be toasty and oaky?

That's because some wines are aged in oak barrels. Generally, but not always, these are more expensive wines, and they are more often red wines than white wines.

Oak aging helps temper the acid and tannins in red wine, making it more drinkable. The only white wine that gets much oak is chardonnay, and California has turned this into a unique style — rich, buttery, oaky, almost caramelly wine. I recently tasted a high-end chardonnay from a major California producer, and the wine was spot on for creme brulee. More, after the jump:

So what do all those adjectives mean? When a wine ages in oak, the oak imparts some of its flavor to the wine. Those adjectives describe some of the flavors. They're easier to notice with white wine, since white wine is lighter in flavor. Smell vanilla on the nose of a chardonnay? That's the oak. Get a touch of caramel or butterscotch on a red wine? That's the oak.

The problem with oak comes when a producer uses too much of it, and the oak overwhelms the rest of the wine. When I drink chardonnay, I want to drink chardonnay, not creme brulee. This is actually quite a controversial statement, given how ingrained oak is in the California style. I have been taken to task by producers who say consumers like that much oak, and that they are only giving wine drinkers what they want.

Perhaps. But oak, like anything else, should be in balance. If it covers up the fruit, there's too much of it. So, when you read a review here and I say there is the proper amount of oak, that's what I'm talking about.

Two other notes about oak. First, less expensive wines are almost never aged in oak, even though the wine has oak characteristics. Oak barrels are too expensive, as much as $1,000 apiece. Instead, less expensive wines are aged in steel tanks which have oak staves, or in tanks where bags of oak chips have been added. This is neither good nor bad (though the purists, of course, will object). It depends on the quality of the chips and staves and the skill of the winemaker. A badly oaked cheap wine, for example, will taste of artificial vanilla instead of vanilla extract.

Second, oaking is both art and science. The winemaker can use different kinds of barrels (the main ones are French, American, and Hungarian), which give the wine different flavors. Barrels can also have different toast levels; the inside is actually charred to bring out certain characteristics, and this changes the flavor. The winemaker can use new barrels or old, age the wine in barrel for different lengths of time, and use different shaped barrels.

Don't worry. All that makes my head hurt, too.

The photo is from penywise of Everett, Wash., via stock.xchng, using a Creative Commons license

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