Wood or fruit? The role of oak in wine
For many centuries, wine makers have stored wine in sturdy, watertight wooden barrels - most often made of oak - and it didn't take long to discover that this process not only kept the wine safe from deterioration but actually added flavors that wine lovers enjoyed.
In most of the world's wine-making regions, the wines considered each winery's best were those "reserved" in barrels for additional aging before sale; thus the widespread use of words like "Reserve," "Reserva" or "Riserva" on more pricey wines; and a taste of oak in wine came to be thought of as a signal of high quality. (As in the picture at right, taken during my May 1998 visit, where Spanish wine maker Alvaro Palacios is shown with a few of the 24 small oak casks that contain the world's entire supply of his remarkable 1996 L'Ermita Priorat.)
It's hard to generalize about the exact effects of oak on wine because so many variables apply. French, American and Yugoslavian oak are all widely used, each conferring somewhat different characteristics; moreover, some high-end wines even distinguish French oak by its forest of origin, such as Limousin or Nevers. Oaking affects reds and whites somewhat differently; new oak has different characteristics (usually stronger and more harsh) than used oak barrels; and the amount of time the wine spends in oak is also significant, as is the wine maker's decision whether to ferment the wine in oak containers, whether to store it after fermentation in large or small casks, and whether to use casks that have been "toasted" (lightly charred) or not.
Despite all these issues, oak almost invariably leaves identifiable traces in the wine. A noticeable vanillin aroma is commonplace, especially with American oak in white wines like Chardonnay and fruity reds like Merlot, where the vanillins often convey a sense of sweetness that seems to appeal to the marketplace. Over-oaked wines may literally smell like wood, very much like the smell in a house with freshly sanded floors. In reds, especially California and Australian Cabernets, new American oak often smells like the herb dill. Particularly in Mediterranean reds, from Rioja to France's Languedoc, oak flavors show up as coconut or aromatic spices like cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg. French oak, used in restraint, is often more subtle; I generally record it in my notes as a light, delicate spiciness or occasionally something organic like damp wood on a forest floor. All this only touches the surface, but in general, the scents of oak are non-fruit aromatics, and that's why wine makers use them, in the best case to enhance, and in the worst case to substitute for, the natural fruit aromas of good wine grapes.
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Spanish wines designated "Crianza" must be at least two years old before they are sold, and they must (in most cases) have spent at least one year in oak barrels. This treatment brings the oak to the fore in this young wine, which under those rules became available for sale only in 1999. Dark garnet in color, it shows spicy vanillin aromas over ripe, plummy fruit on the nose and palate, with lemon-squirt acidity adding structure to "sweet" oak and fruit. A pleasant food wine, easy to drink, but oak is clearly the dominant element in the mix. U.S. importer: Cutting Edge Selections Inc., Fairfax, Ohio. (Jan. 2, 2000)
FOOD MATCH: Very fine with a simple Italian dish of chicken breast braised with wild mushrooms.
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Vol. 1, No. 50, Jan. 3, 2000