What's New April 17, 2018

The Tree Angle: Unlocking the Mystery of Oak Flavors in Wine

By Leiba Estrin

Oak is to wine what salt is to food. It adds complexity and dimension and is found in both red and white wines, and in New and Old World wines. Oak is harvested for wine in three regions: France, America, and Hungary. When done well, it balances the flavors beautifully, but when applied without skill or knowledge, oak can drown out the other elements and flavors of wine.

In ancient cultures, wine used to be stored mostly in large clay jugs, but in some Mediterranean regions, barrels were fashioned from palm trees. Eventually, the Romans discovered that oak was more pliable, easier to shape into barrels, and waterproof. This became the popular method of storing and transporting wine. The abundance of oak forests all over Europe definitely helped.

To this day, people find that oak softens their wine and gives it a smoother taste, further improving the flavors and aromas. In many wines, contact with oak develops flavors of vanilla, clove, cinnamon, allspice, caramel, toffee, honey, and butter.

There are four kinds of oak used in wine:

  • Essence, which comes in liquid form (cheapest)

  • Chips (also cheap)

  • Staves (these are better quality)

  • Barrels, for storage lasting eight months to 18 months or longer (these are high end)

Most French wines use French oak, which imparts vanilla and caramel, giving wines a deep, round flavor profile. Pinot noir and chardonnay are varietals that absorb French oak quite well. American oak (often from Missouri) gives off flavors of dill and coconut, and are used by most American wineries. Hungarian oak is used for making large batches of wine and is similar to French oak, but costs less. This type of oak does well with full-bodied varietals such as malbec and petit verdot.

“Neutral oak” is oak that has been used at least three times, while “new oak” has only been used 1-3 times. While neutral oak imparts less flavor, it is still used because it continues to add to the body of the wine.

California’s Herzog Wine Cellars in Oxnard conducted an unusual experiment, using two different kinds of oak barrels for aging the exact same cabernet sauvignon of wine. They wanted to see how French and American barrels differ in how they affect a wine’s flavor and texture, and found the following results:

The French oak barrels impart flavors of vanilla, chocolate, and even some clove and spice. The texture is round and smooth as satin. Meanwhile, American oak barrels provide a creamy rich texture that shows off tantalizing fresh black plum with hints of butterscotch and toasted pecan. Both wines would pair nicely with steak and grilled meats, although a deeper, older cut of meat with an earthy tone would go better with the French oak, while a flavor-popping bold style steak would pair best with the American oak.

Taste testing both the French oak and American oak Herzog varieties would make an intriguing conversation starter at your next barbecue, dinner party, or holiday feast. Order today and see how well your guests know their oak!

A sampling of Oak Aged Wines to try: