To Oak or Not to Oak…That is the Question!

Apologies to Shakespeare, but time for the annual blog on wines and oak. I though Beppi did a good job on the weekend giving an overview of the issue in the Globe, so I will expand on it with reference to BC wines.

But for those who need a refresher on oak, here’s the Coles Notes. A lot of wine — red and white — is fermented and/or aged in oak barrels. Doing so can accomplish a range of good things (from softening harsh red tannins and adding lovely vanilla/butterscotch/butter aromas and flavours) and, to my tastes, not so good things (like excessively herbal and woody flavours that can sometimes competely overwhelm the fruit). The kind of oak used, whether it is new or old oak, how long the wine is kept in it — all have impacts.

But, for me, the most interesting thing about oak is that, more than almost anything else, it drives the style of the wine. And as anyone who reads this blog knows, style is one of my big things!

Nowhere is that seen better than in some of BC’s most expensive and prestigous Cabernet Sauvignon based wines. For example, Occulus (from Mission Hill), Osoyoos Larose and Nota Bene (from Black Hills) all have lots of oak in them. They are made in a ‘Bordeaux-style’, which emphasizes herbs, wood and tannins over fruit. That style is very poplular (French Bordeaux is arguably the best fine wine in the world to most experts) and people will pay a lot for it (the BC wines listed above are over $50 a bottle, with some Bordeaux costing thosuands!).

The other end of the spectrum is what is called a California style. Oak is still used, but the result is a vanilla overlay to ripe, black currant and cherry fruit. In BC, La Frenz’s Cabernet is the best example — it is yummy (yeah, I know, I am giving my preference away!).

For whites, Chardonnay is another great example of how oak can have impacts. Oaked versions like those from Township 7 and Ferreira have deeper colour, vanilla/buttery noses, and lush, buttery/sometimes nutty fruit. Its sometimes called the California style, although some great French Burgundies (like those from Meursault) are also like this.

Completely unoaked Chatrdonnays – using stainless steel for storage and called a Chablis-style – couldn’t be more different. Green apples, minerals; those are kinds of flavours you get.

So which is best? That’s what is so great about wine — it depends on the style you like! My preference is the La Frenz and Ferreira styles, but everyone is different.

What’s important is understanding these different styles, finding the one you like, and then those wines that fit in to it. How much you are willing to spend on that style is a whole different question…but just make sure you spend it on the kind of wine you like!



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