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?

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Thanks for your time!