Oak: Wonderbra of the Wine World
by Debra Meiburg MW
Oak is the Wonderbra of the wine world. It offers shape and comfort to the user; it provides wine with seductive padding, support and contour. In the past twenty years oak has run rampant, dominating wines from Europe to the Southern hemisphere. While there is no question that oak enhances wine’s silhouette, many winemakers push it to the extreme, with Domaine Laurent of Nuits-St.-Georges boasting use of “200% oak.” Overtly buxom appeals to some, but beware, there must be something interesting underneath. Otherwise, one is left with a sagging structure and the inevitable droop.
But why are oak and wine so intimately acquainted? For centuries, the Mediterranean relied on clay jugs called amphorae for shipping wine, while inland regions, such as Rioja, Spain used pig skins. As wine production progressed northward, woodsy northern Europe opted to store wine in oak barrels. Fine wine producers soon realized that oak imparted flavors into the wine far superior to pig skins and clay.
The two dominant oak suppliers are America and France, though barrels are sourced from woodsy regions everywhere including Central and Eastern Europe. American oak has long been regarded as having a vanilla and coconut influence on wine, whereas French oak is considered to impart a spicy character into the liquid. Modern science now argues this flavor differential is dictated by barrel production technique rather than distinctive oak species. How the wood is cut, dried and seasoned has much to do with the barrel’s ultimate flavor profile, but the most important influence is the heat used to shape the barrels.
In order to configure stiff corset-like oak staves into a pleasing round shape, they are warmed over open flames before being forced into a series of heavy steel bands. Any woman with an under-wire support system will understand this effort. Heat levels facilitate pliability, but also change the wood’s inherent character. Thus an oak barrel that was shaped over high flame will infuse a smoky, almost coffee-like flavor into wine. Oak shaped with minimal heat will inculcate a delicate vanilla profile and oak with “medium toast” is most likely to impart a spicy, clove-like flavor.
While oak can lift and separate the ordinary from the sublime, many contemporary winemakers are reining back their exuberant use of oak, especially Australian winemakers, whose wines were once so overtly laden with oak flavor that Yarra Valley winemaker Serge Carlei, referred to them as “wine with breast implants.” “They hone you in”, he says, “and get your attention, but when you touch them, they’re not the real thing.” These days many Australian winemakers are producing classic oak-matured wines as well as a range labeled “unoaked.”
The Wonderbra was hugely popular in the 90 ‘s. We’re now nearing the end of the reactive burn-your-bra 00’s. Neither is sexy without underlying fruit and structure: it’s all a question of balance and proportion.