An Update on Oak!

Yes, there was a time, late 70s and through the 80s, when UK wine consumers were tired of drinking wines where you couldn’t see the fruit for the trees. Oak first, fruit later (if you were lucky) seemed to be the mantra of the times, and consumers reacted against it.

Wine Writers started referring to the ABC Club, the Anything But Chardonnay/Cabernet Club, which was coined in response to there being far too many wines made with these two varieties and whose styles were far too oaked.

The plea went out – please give us wines whose oak influence doesn’t mask the fruit that we all crave. Eventually, winemakers listened and a period of equilibrium prevailed.

However, it is still true to say that many of us like to have some oak in our wines, white, red and even occasionally rosé. So, winemakers perhaps felt stuck between a rock and a hard place – damned if I do, damned if I don’t.

Judicial oaking was considered key, and still is. When wine is crafted with care, ensuring that the fruit is to the fore, but with back-up, in terms of integrated oak-driven aromas and flavours, as well as the depth, complexity and perhaps intensity that oak can bring to the final product most people will be happy.

Well, most, but maybe not everybody and certainly not the over-stretched wineries for whom the world’s financial crisis is still a constant worry. Oak barrels cost a lot of money!

Enter the cheats!?

It’s well known in the wine world that an oak influence can be applied to wine, without the need to age the wine in oak barrels. I once wrote and article, several years ago, entitled: ‘Planks in Tanks’. Yes, you’ve guessed it – here, temperature controlled stainless steel fermentation tanks are used to make the wine, but before fermentation takes place staves of oak are added to the tank.

Oak planks ready for the pot!
Oak planks ready for the pot!

The fermenting juice is constantly moved so that all the wine is in contact with the wood as well as tiny oxygen bubbles being pumped into the tank throughout the whole process. Bingo – an instantly oak aged wine!

It’s the same with oak chips/cuttings, placed either directly into the tank, as above, or in huge ‘teabags’.

Oak Chips fermenting in Chardonnay!
Oak Chips fermenting in Chardonnay!

But is this actually cheating? The wine has those fruit aromas blended nicely with the oak characteristics of aromas and flavours and, of course, the wine is on the market far more quickly where it is sold at a more consumer-friendly price!

Enter the scientists!

The men in white coats have also been brought in. During the last few years experiments have been going on, which have resulted in a new mini-industry – the production of essence of oak liquids. I kid you not – now, grapes happily growing and maturing in the vineyards before harvest are being sprayed with these liquids. It’s almost DIY oaking!

Soon the grapes are picked, brought to the presses where the resultant juice already has an oak influence – before it even goes into the fermentation tanks!

And now, just in the last couple of days is has been revealed that our friends in white have been meddling again! Wine is made with the addition of yeast. Thess can be cultivated yeasts, those which have been cultured and manipulated in the labs; or those which are often referred to as ‘wild yeasts’, those which are found naturally in the vineyards and indeed on the very grapes themselves.

Cultivating yeasts.
Cultivating yeasts.

 

Yeasts, it has been discovered, are not detrimentally affected by the injection of, yes you know what’s coming – oak extract!

Very recent research has found that wines whose fermentation has been provoked by such oak-influenced yeasts are indeed displaying similar aroma and flavour profiles to wines that have been traditionally aged in oak barrel

Does it matter? The above ‘cheating/scientific research’ is consumer led, we like oak in our wines and these methods bring the per bottle price down.

What do you think?

All comments, via this website and/or by e-mail to colin@colinharknessonwine.com will be gratefully received.

Thanks for your time!

2 thoughts on “An Update on Oak!”

  1. Thanks for your interesting blog on oak in wine making. Personally I worry less about how oak is added to the wine than the trend to rush wine into the bottle and to the market. I appreciate the economics and influence of supermarkets but the “rush” syndrome seems to pose a threat to the integrity, quality and ultimately reputation of wine. One question, do you think that the “consejo reguladors” of the Denominacións de Origen will require winemakers to specify the source of oak on the bottle? “Grapes sprayed with essence of oak” doesn’t sound as appealing as “Aged in oak barrels for 18 months”! But after all it’s the taste, aroma, look & feel of the wine that matters, although tours of wineries will be less fun if there are no stacks of oak barrels in vaulted cellars, just stainless steel tanks! Joe.

  2. Hola Joe! Many thanks for your comments. My apologies for not getting back to you earlier. I’m not as yet in the habit of looking out for any comments that come in when I’ve written a blog – your comment here has made me realise this, so thank you. I will endeavour to do this from now on!

    I agree with your comments about rushing the wine out of the cellars and onto the market, though I don’t think this is so prevalent here in Spain. There are plenty of wines on the Spanish market but I’m not sure that there are that many that are released before their due date. It seems to me that it’s the winemakers that still hold the power here, with the commercial people having play second fiddle. I would say that in most cases the wine is only released when the winemaker deems that it should be. However, I’m sure there will be perhaps heated discussions on this which may result in a compromise that keeps both factions just about happy, though maybe not the consumer who buys the wine when it first hits the shelves?

    It’s an interesting point re labeling. I’ve often said that bin my view the all-powerful DOs have too big an influence. As you know from your travels, up to a point winemakers in ‘the New World’ can do virtually anything they want without the fear of red tape tying their hands together.

    However in this particular case I believe there is a need, a duty, even, to keep the consumer properly informed regarding the oak influence in the wine she/he is considering buying. As I understand it a label can only legally say that the wine has been aged in oak barrels, if it actually has been. However, I think our marketing friends are at liberty to say oak aged when in fact they mean ‘oak influenced’ (probably oak chippings or staves) although the fact that the wine spends a week/month/more? in the tank in contact with these chippings/staves could mean that it has indeed been aged with oak, albeit for a short time.

    Spraying the grapes with oak essence and or injecting yeasts with a version of the same, is a different matter – I believe. There should, I think, be reference to this fact on the bottle. Though how this can be ‘policed’ and indeed if this would be legal I am unsure.

    There are of course many wine drinkers who actually don’t care, and it could be argued, why should they?! If the wine tastes good and has an element of oak on the nose and the palate why should they worry how the ‘oak’ has arrived, the more so if this keeps down the cost of their bottle of wine! Provided of course that such wines are approved by the health authorities.

    Me, well I’m in the traditionalist camp on this one – for me an ‘oaked wine’ should have had time peacefully resting in barrels in the quiet, dimly lit, temperature and humidity controlled (naturally, where possible? depths of the cellar!

    Please confirm that you have received(read this reply to your comment.

    Many thanks again, Joe – hope to see you at another wine event soon!

    Saludos,

    Colin

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