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December 4, 2019

A Hard Turn at Highway Oak or Taking the Frontage Road

Post by South Lyndale Liqours

To oak or not to oak your wine

by Daniel Brashi (Curator)

I want to start by noting this is not an oak-bashing session. I have, on numerous occasions, consumed far too much wine that had been in far too much oak and had far too much fun doing it.  But there is a trend toward less oak showing in a wine.

Oak that is used to make a vessel was first documented in Egypt 2690 BE though not used for wine.  And then around 800-900 BE ,during the Iron Age, these vessels received tops. Now as a fully enclosed “barrel” (more like a bucket) they could be used for beer, milk, olive oil and wine. In this way oak influence in wine came essentially by accident.

I have, on numerous occasions, consumed far too much wine that had been in far too much oak and had far too much fun doing it.

Accident or intentional?

Before these vessels clay had been used to transport the liquid but was fragile. It’s likely no winemaker thought, “I wonder what flavor that tight-grained French Oak would add to my wine.”  And so again, by accident the oak improved some of the wines. That same winemaker unlikely thought, “Hmmmm, what will Cabernet do with those volatile phenols containing vanillin, lactones, and terpenes.  Will they add toast, tea and tobacco notes?”

Onward, and by accident...

Fast forward, Cooperages now exist and better barrels are being made.  It has become an art in a sense and through that comes a concern about what wood might be doing to the wine.  Some winemakers are figuring it out and a standard is becoming set in each winemaking country.

This standard includes type of oak, age of oak and size of barrel. It didn’t take long for ol party-crashing science to show up and kick the door down. The art became a science and the science became a trend.


To oak or not to oak? Stop in and try these wines.
Let us know what you think!


To oak wine or not to oak?

Cellulose-holds wood together

Hemicellulose-wood sugars. Simple sugars can form during steaming and toasting the staves.

American and French Oak

American oak has a broader grain and tends to offer wine generous flavor and tannin, while French Oak tends to be a little tighter, refined and restrained.

As all cyclical things are…er…cyclical, oak has become more of an art again. And the artists work both at the cooperage and in the winery. The more a barrel is used, the less it imparts any flavor. Today it is not uncommon to hear “10% new American Oak.” Old oak can add texture to a wine and aid in evolution and complexity.

Back to trend

Over the last five to eight years there has been a tendency to ease up on oak.  Part of this may be attributed to the fact that oak is expensive. I recall a winemaker from Oregon once answering the question of why he left his wine in oak for 18 months, “I had set out for a year in oak, but I spent all my money on barrels and didn’t have any left for bottling.”

Another tendency is toward expression of both terroir and varietal character-two things often masked by oak, though an understanding of varietal and oak is important.

While recently in South Africa Koen Roose (Spioenkop Winery) offered us a Pinotage that had seen 100% new oak. No one tasting the wine had guessed over 10%. Koen claims Pinotage loves to feed on oak. A similar philosophy exists in Burgundy. Many young Burgundy wines will show flashy oak but after time the wine will chew up the oak and years on will barely be detectable.

These are example of wines where the oak gets chewed up.


Wine where the oak gets chewed up and is minimal

Understanding the Nuances

Nuance is important. And where this is most evident is with Chardonnay. For years Chard went through malolactic fermentation giving the wine a creamy texture and butter-like flavor and then the wines went into new American Oak or had oak chips or staves thrown into tanks to extract flavor. These wines were generally huge in personality and wildly popular for a time. Then they started to fall out of favor and wineries took note. Many wineries took a hard right at oak and went completely unoaked.

So, un-oaked?

To completely abandon a trend is not always the wisest path. A small integration of oak or oak used in an intelligent way can offer a lot to a wine. Just as a little malo can. Balance is what is truly important.

And after all of this, if you go out and try an unoaked wine and then a wine with only a little, but you yearn for that big butter and toast…go for it! Drink what you like!


Try these minimal or no-oak wines at SLL


Minimal or no oak wines
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