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Tasting Oak, or Is It?

It's easy to confuse other aspects of a wine with oak flavors
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Jan 3, 2013 4:01pm ET

Recently I was enjoying lunch with some friends in one of New York's classier Italian restaurants. Asked to pick an appropriate white wine to drink with the antipasti, I scanned the excellent list and homed in on Terredora Greco di Tufo Loggia della Serra 2010, made from an ancient grape variety grown in vineyards surrounding Mt. Vesuvius in the Campagna region of Italy. I knew the wine from previous vintages. It typically shows more depth than most, while retaining the grape's natural freshness.

I tasted it and smiled. Exactly what it should be, no cork problems. Poured around the table, it got almost unanimous approval. Except for one person, a veteran of many years selling Italian wines. He complained that he hated it when Italian winemakers used oak on wines traditionally made to be fresh.

That stunned me. I tasted no oak, and gently suggested that he try another sip. "I don't like it," he insisted. "It's too oaky."

I went back to my glass to analyze the characteristics. Front and center was the fresh fruit character, which reminded me of apples and peaches. There was tangy, citrusy acidity, plus a range of savory flavors I associate with aging on the lees (spent yeast cells that drop out as the wine ages in the winery), reminiscent of the telltale nutty, yeasty notes in better Muscadet and Chablis. Lees-aging also adds a rich mouthfeel, the sort of creamy texture that can come from oak aging. Oxidation with age can also introduce toasty notes we associate with oak aging.

I leaned over to another friend knowledgable about Italian wines, sitting next to me, and asked in a whisper if he knew whether Terredora aged this wine in oak. "I doubt it," he said.

We live in an age when information is at our fingertips, so I pulled up the Terredora website on my iPhone. I found the wine and its technical note. Under "Winemaking Techniques" it read, "The must is settled and then fermented at cool temperatures using selected yeasts. The wine is aged on its lees in stainless steel but sees no oak." I put the phone away and said nothing more, but it got me thinking.

Oak is a contentious subject in wine circles. There are those who condemn any wine that shows the merest wisp of oak flavor. Others feel like something's missing without the rich texture and spicy, vanilla-tinged flavors of new oak. It's why makers of inexpensive bottlings often soak their wines in oak chips to pick up the familiar flavor without spending $1,000 per new oak barrel to age the wine.

New oak can indeed dominate a wine, reducing its other characteristics to supporting players. For that reason winemakers that use oak barrels often employ mostly used barrels, which contribute less overt woody flavors while also softening, rounding out and integrating the wine aged in them. (And, when I visit wineries to taste in their cellars, I also ask to taste from an older barrel if possible, the better to taste what's at the core of the wine.)

For family dinner on Christmas Eve, I poured Evening Land Chardonnay La Source 2009 to drink with cacciuccio, an Italian seafood stew. The deep, complex flavors from a single vineyard in Oregon's Eola-Amity Hills region are the stars of this wine. They deliver tremendous mouthfeel and intensity without a sense of weight, or any noticeable new oak flavor.

The match was fabulous, the wine silky and seductive, laced with enough bracing acidity to embrace the freshness of the seafood. Mind you, the wine ages entirely in oak barrels, but hardly any new oak. I chose it because I knew there wouldn't be any strong oak flavors to compete with the fish dish. My daughter was wowed, even though she usually likes her Chardonnays spicy and toasty. Depth wins, the benefits of oak enhancing complex flavors without getting in the way.

Last week I noticed a conversation on Twitter wrestling over a complaint that a red wine from Bonny Doon was "overoaked." Randall Grahm, the winery's founder, jumped in to point out that it could not be. "Haven't purchased a stick of oak since '07," he wrote.

Where did the original complaint come from? Probably misidentifying the flavors. Ferreting out individual details is hard to do in the soup of characteristics a wine can present to us. When it's obvious, oak is a distraction, even to some of us who like the flavor. But beware. Don't be so ready to blame the oak when it might be something else.

Jeffrey D Travis
Sarasota, FL —  January 4, 2013 10:03am ET
Harvey, you are on target once again. Some wine lovers seem to be anti- oak these days at the drop of a hat. Yet, if one does not like the “flavor” most easily described as “oaky”, perhaps it did not occur to them to say I don’t like this wine because it’s too lees-aging-y or too oxidation-with-age-y! But you are probably correct; many (maybe most) can’t or don’t discern the difference.
Pacific Rim Winemakers
Portland OR —  January 4, 2013 5:27pm ET
the amount of preconceived/prepackaged ideas about wine is just mind boggling. We just miss a bit of candid hedonism here rather than battle cry - Cork vs screwcap, oak vs unoaked, sweet vs dry, natural vs manipulated... Let's just dig a bit deeper if possible.

By the way had an Italian fish stew for Christmas as well - had a nice Muscadet with it.

Don Rauba
Schaumburg, IL —  January 4, 2013 9:59pm ET
Everyone's got "the interwebs"; everyone's a celebrity; everyone's a wine expert; everyone knows everything. How very dare you question an assertion that a wine has oak (even though it doesn't) Harvey! ;-)

On a serious note, it's been suggested to me that malolactic fermentation in white wines gives them a weighty, oily quality I don't care for. I'm still testing that theory, but I've also heard that style confused with oak flavors, which is just as ridiculous... er, I mean "scholarly".

Does this kind of insanity drive people to drink alone? cheers...
Michael Twelftree
Malvern, South Australia —  January 5, 2013 3:16pm ET
Nice piece Harvey,
There are so many aspects of wine that get far to generalized, sadly oak is one of them as it’s not a flavor enhancer but an oxidative tool.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco —  January 7, 2013 12:44pm ET
Dan, malolactic fermentation (a secondary development that converts malic acid—what makes apples tart—to lactic acid—the one in milk) mainly makes wine feel softer in texture. It also makes a wine more chemically stable, and produces characteristic aromatic byproducts that add an earthy complexity. Being less tart can indeed make a wine seem oily to some.

When "malo" takes place in the barrel many winemakers believe it helps produce better integration of oak character in the wine. That may be the connection to oak you're thinking of.

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