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Oak Or Not?
Copyright 2003 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved. For more information go to

What's your take on oak in wine? Some wine lovers enjoy the spicy, aromatic elements that wines take on from being fermented and aged in oak barrels. Others argue that wine should be about fruit, not wood, and object to any treatment that alters that natural state.

For most of us, the truth - as usual - comes down somewhere between the two extremes. As I wrote in a 30 Second Wine Advisor article a few years ago, the abuse and overuse of oak in wine is something to rant about. From California Chardonnay to Barossa Shiraz, wines that taste more of wood than fruit rarely make me smile; and when oak aromas reach the point at which a wine reminds me of the smell of freshly sanded oak floors, I tend to put down the glass and look for something else to drink.

If you're interested in making a more detailed study of this topic, we're taking on "Detecting Oak" as the theme of this month's feature in our ongoing Wine Tasting 101 project. I've selected a pair of Chardonnays from a Washington State winery, Columbia Crest, that I believe will provide a good comparison between oaky and not-oaky characteristics, and also propose a short list of a few other wines chosen to display the use (or non-use) of oak in wine. You're invited to click the link above for more information about participating in this free, informal project. Let's finish up today with a quick summary of that January 2001 article.

It's worth mentioning that oak is not necessarily a bad thing. Many, perhaps most, fine wines spend some time in oak casks during the winemaking process. Wooden barrels were used in wine making for centuries before stainless steel tanks were feasible; visit the greatest chateaus of Bordeaux and the finest caves of Burgundy and you'll see rows of oak barrels in which great wines are gently aging.

From Chianti to Rioja and around the world, fine and ageworthy red wines without oak would be unthinkable, and wine makers spend a great deal of time contemplating oak and how to use it. Small barrels and new wood impart more oak flavor and tannins to the wine than larger wooden tanks or older wood; toasting barrels over fire creates a different flavor than untreated oak. New barrels import more and stronger flavors than used cooperage. American oak, Slavonian oak from Croatia, many different kinds of French oak...just as grapes vary by variety, regional oaks contribute different aromas and flavors to the wine.

So where do wine makers go wrong? In my opinion, trouble comes when wood fights fruit and wood wins. A wine that smacks more of vanilla, coconut or freshly sawed planks - the signature scents of heavy to excessive oak - seems to me to miss the mark.

Why do they do it, then? In the case of some modest wines, it may simply reflect an effort to compensate for mediocre grapes. But it's clear that some consumers - including some of the most influential critics - enjoy the taste of oak. A rave from a powerful wine writer can be money in the bank for a wine maker.

But I like the pithy advice once rendered by Richard Eccleston, a well-known Boston-area wine retailer: "Oak is a spice, not a sauce."


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