The Rougher than Rough Guide to Oak

One of the most enjoyable half days I’ve had recently was in the cooperage at Hennessy in Cognac where, under supervision, a group of us, journalists, restaurateurs and folk from the Irish wine trade, were permitted to put a barrel together.

ern_00411We didn’t start from scratch. Alas, they wouldn’t let us use the wicked looking adze used to put the groove in the top, or the ancient saw for cutting the staves, the planks that form the barrel. But we did involve ourselves in the process, holding the staves together, putting on the bands and generally, playing with nondescript pieces of wood and hoops of iron and seeing the finished object evolve.

The exercise set me thinking a good deal about the juxtaposition of wine and oak. I returned to Dublin willing to discuss the experience with anyone who would listen. In doing so, I found that many of my wine-loving friends knew little about the effect of oak on wine though, usually in relation to Chardonnay, they were confident enough to express a preference for oaked or unoaked. Hopefully, these musings will help demystify the process a bit further.

Trawling my local wine merchants, I find a New Zealand pinot noir proclaiming that it was ‘aged a year in French oak barrels’; an Aussie shiraz has spent ’12 months in American oak barrels’; a Chilean chardonnay has been ‘aged in French and American oak barrels’. What does this tell me?

One, winemakers regard oak as desirable. Two, barrels are expensive. Otherwise they wouldn’t brag about it would they? When was the last time you read on a label ‘infused with a giant teabag stuffed with offcuts, chips and shavings’? That’s well extreme but if you find a back label with some quasi-poetic crap like “blessed with the kiss of oak” you can bet your last euro that they aren’t maturing the wine in casks.

French oak has become the benchmark. Oak also comes from the Baltic states and Eastern Europe and Baltic oak was once highly prized until dodgy forestry practices caused it to be spurned by coopers (as barrel makers are called). It has only recently begun to regain its reputation.

Beyond its native continent, American oak has a history in Spain and Australia where the attractive-but-simplistic flavours imparted found favour with makers of Rioja and of Aussie chardonnay and shiraz. American oak is less expensive than French and the aromas lent by casking wine inm American oak are generally more blatant and upfront.

When the cooper assembles the oak staves to form a barrel he heats them over a fire in order to assist bending. This also ‘toasts’ the inner surface. The amount of toast greatly affects the flavours the barrel will impart to the wine. Winemakers soon copped on that tweaking this process would enable them to specify if not the exact degree of toast, certainly a graded high/medium/low.

Size does matter. A small barrel will provide a greater surface area to volhelene-barrelume ratio; hence oak’s effect will be more pronounced. Age matters too. In Burgundy, where using 100% new oak would overpower, producers exhibit caution, using only a few new barrels each year whereas in Bordeaux many go for broke – employing 100% new oak, or even 200% for the cult ‘garagistes’ (boutique producers for whom ultimate quality, regardless of expense, is the holy grail) who might rack from one set of new barrels to another after twelve months.

Some winemakers resort to economy methods like purchasing year-old barrels in prime condition. Alternatively, knackered barrels may be revitalised by dissembling, shaving down the staves, re-toasting and re-assembling. Real cheapskates immerse staves of oak in the tank containing the wine. Or employ the teabag process I mentioned earlier. The scum of the earth use powdered or liquid oak extract. Which nobody admits to.

Why oak?” you say. “Why not ash or pine or sycamore?” Well, oak has three advantages over other woods when it comes to storing wine. One, it’s supple. Two, it’s hard. Three, it’s watertight. Supple, so coopers can easily fettle it into barrel staves. Hard, to withstand the rigours of transportation. The Romans were using amphorae, big earthenware jars to transport wine until they decided to create an empire. What price an amphora of Rhone syrah enduring a journey from Southern Gaul to Hadrian’s Wall ?

martin-barrelWhen it comes to holding liquid, oak benefits from being rich in tyloses, structures that plug the tubes and stop precious nectar seeping through the wood. Maturation in oak barrels clarifies and stabilises the wine in a relaxed, natural way, encouraging a plethora of sensations that will ultimately delight nose and palate. Oak, sensitively used, can elevate wine to a level stratospherically higher than that of fermented grape juice.

Let’s uncork our unoaked chardonnay. Dependent upon where the grapes are grown and on the subsequent treatment they receive, the primary flavour will always be that of fruit. Could be apples, peaches, melons mangoes, even stewed pears, or a combination of all these but, predominantly, fruit. Mmm… this is good, honest, uncomplicated wine. Poets won’t write sonnets about it but they’d drink it with pleasure and feel refreshed.

Now for the barrel-aged example. The brash fruit has been tamed and other elements have started to evolve. I find coconut and cream, a pleasing vanilla waft and some spice and herbal notes. The wine feels substantial in the mouth. There’s a lot going on, one of the biggest compliments I can give.

So, oaked is better than unoaked?” Not necessarily. Badly made unoaked wine equals alcoholic tinned fruit, boredom in a glass. But insensitive oaking obliterates the fruitful exuberance, substituting tones derived wholly from wood: coconut, from high-toasted barrel staves; vanilla; cloves and cardamom; flower scents, particularly carnation; lactic odours; leather; smoked meat. All things that, in minute quantities, spell ‘character’ but, in abundance spell ‘yech!’ Over-oaked wines can be tannic, too.

Best, perhaps, for the average drinker who enjoys a glass of wine but doesn’t want to get bound up in all the anorakery, to regard oak as just another factor in the complex equasion that is winemaking.