To oak or not to oak…is that the question?

Oak, as even the most casual wine drinker knows, is what most wine is made and/or stored in before it is bottled. But what intrigues – and bugs – me is how the oak can affect different wines in different ways. And how controversial that is!

For whites, the classic example is Chardonnay. California developed a reputation for “big, oaky” Chardonnays, which meant (and often still means) lots of vanilla, butter and even butterscotch overtones to go along with citrus fruit. When you add in high alcohol levels, you have a recipe that drives many people crazy and led to the “ABC” craze of a few years ago (i.e. Anything But Chardonnay).

At the other end of the spectrum are Chardonnays made in stainless steel vats, like they do it for Chablis in Burgundy. With no oak, all you get is the citrus fruit, very dry and crisp, with mineral overtones.

Personally, I like both styles, but have to admit – the big fat Cali Chardonnays are my favourite, as long as they have enough fruit in them to match the oak. My classic example is Beringer’s Private Reserve Chardonnay. It is so rich and lovely in the mouth – wow! I don’t know how anyone wouldn’t like it.

For reds, the three grapes I like to talk about are Cabernet Sauvignon, Grenache and Malbec. Cabernet is the classic oak aged wine, with Bordeaux as the reference point. But, for me, the way it is made there is way to lean, woody and herbal (unless you can afford the $200+ wines). Some call it “complex”; I just call it a mouth full of wood.

But in California – and Australia – they have a different style. With riper fruit, the oak adds a lovely coat of vanilla to the black currant fruit, which I love! My first experience with that was Robert Mondavi’s Napa Valley Cabs back in the mid 1980s. Back then, they were still in the $24 range and what an experience – the essence of ripe fruit and vanilla balanced together. Caymus and Beringer were others I used to be able to afford…and still remember with much fondness!

More recently, I have found that oak can have really different effects on Grenache. In the Cotes du Rhone – where it is the main grape of Chateauneuf du Pape – I can taste little or no impacts from it, even though many wines get oak aging. The same in Australia, where it is riper but still not oaky. But in Spain – where it is called – Garnacha; OMG, what a difference! Many of those wines, including some that are highly rated, just get all herbal and woody on me. It’s to the point that I stay away from it almost completely in Spain, sticking to Tempranillo (which seems to act more like Cali Cab).

And, finally, Argentinian Malbec, where the difference – at least for me – is even more dramatic. Without oak, it is a fabulously rich and fruity wine, a bit like Zinfandel but not quite as dramatic. But add “oak aging” and…well, it really doesn’t work for me, again going all woody.

So, getting back to my original question, it probably isn’t “to oak or not to oak?”. Instead, it should be “what do you oak and what does it taste like?” Then it is up to the individual to decide what tastes best for him or her!



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