Raise your hand if you've ever read, seen or heard someone describe a wine as tasting "oaky." I'll even admit to being guilty of using that term in a few columns myself. When I was a novice wine drinker, I would hear people discuss oak — its integration or prominence — and nod along, pretending to understand what they meant. If you've ever found yourself in that situation, this week's column is for you.
When someone describes a wine as oaky, they are referring to the flavors it gets from the barrels it was aged in. Most commonly, we see oak — either French or American — used for wine, but there are parts of the world where Slovenian or Hungarian oak is common, and even a few places where oak is passed over for barrels made of chestnut or acacia.
New oak barrels — that is, barrels that haven't held wine before — impart the strongest flavors. French oak (Latin name Quercus robur if you want to be fancy) typically leaves flavors of subtle baking spices like cardamom, nutmeg and clove, and is known for adding a refined, elegance to wine. American oak (Quercus alba), on the other hand, is often thought of as being more overt and rugged, with flavors of coconut, dill and vanilla. (When I was first learning about American oak, the flavor reminded me of Cool Ranch Doritos.) Both species of oak are good for taming the naturally harsh tannins some red wines posses.
There are many things a barrel maker can do to affect the way his barrel will change wine, and it's common for winemakers to order custom barrels to ensure the wine emerges with a precise flavor. For example, barrel makers can change the level of "toast" in a barrel by reducing or increasing the amount that the barrel's interior is charred by fire. A barrel with heavier toast will have a greater smoothing effect on the wine's tannins. The age of the oak trees also matters, with the oak grain tightening over the life of a tree, imparting less flavor than barrels made from younger trees.
Though some oak barrels can top out at more than $4,000, they're a long-term investment. A well-made barrel can last 80+ years, and — even once a barrel no longer imparts any flavor into a wine — it can still add a lush, round texture. It's not uncommon for winemakers to sell their used barrels to other winemakers to use for their aging potential.
Chances are that most of the red wines you're used to drinking have some sort of oak influence. It could be that they spent a full 12 months aging in barrels or, in a few cases, oak staves could have been dipped into the wine. For inexpensive wines oak chips can be added and filtered out later.
As always, you can see what I'm drinking on Instagram at @sethebarlow and send your wine questions and quibbles to firstname.lastname@example.org