Wine of the Week: "Oaky May Be Bad, but Oak Is Good."

Categories: Wine Time

If you're anywhere between 21 and 51 years of age (I'll be 44 next month), you were brought up with the notion that oak flavors were a sign of a fine wine. Back in the 1970s, when huge investment in the Californian wine industry began to take shape, the dudes in charge -- think Gallo and Mondavi -- decided that Americans should drink full-bodied, fruit-forward, oaky wines. Aggressive marketing throughout the '70s, '80s and '90s created a generation of American wine drinkers who looked for those qualities in the wines they drank. For many of us, "oaky Chardonnay," "oaky Merlot," and "oaky Cab[ernet Sauvignon]" were bywords by which we set the standards for fine wine.

But that all began to change, about five or six years ago, when sommeliers, wine writers, wine buyers, and wine lovers began to shift their attention to wines with less oak, less alcohol, more subtle fruit, and brighter acidity. The reason for this trend?

In my view, it's because our attitudes about wine began to change: Wine was initially marketed to us as a cocktail, to be served and consumed even without food; as Americans began to see the virtues of pairing wine with food, they started (wisely) to search for more food-friendly wines.

New York Times wine writer Eric Asimov's article, "Taking a Closer Look at Wine's Conventional Wisdom" (October 2007), was an indicator of this sea change.

"Oaky may be bad, but oak is good," wrote Eric. "Back in the 1990s, when the fashion for big, bombastic, oaky chardonnays was at its height, nobody would have taken this belief seriously. Fashion has changed and oak barrels have now been branded the villain for previous excesses. The fact is, for aging wine, no better vessel than oak barrels has yet been discovered. How those barrels are used is another question."

Eric's article came to mind when I recently tasted Le Volte, one of the more user-friendly wines produced by one of Europe's most famous and prestigious wineries, Ornellaia, producer of Italy's most coveted single-vineyard Merlot, Masseto. (Back in September 2008, when I visited the winery, I snapped the photo, above, of Ornellaia's small cask -- barrique -- aging room.)

le volte.jpg
The thing that I like the most about this wine is the fact that the winemaker ages this blend of Merlot, Sangiovese, and Cabernet Sauvignon in small oak casks that have been previously used to age the winery's top wines. As a result, the casks no longer impart toasty oak flavors. They serve simply as one of nature's ideal vessels for aging wines: the porous nature of the wood, gently oxygenating the wine as time passes, slowly mellowing the wine's tannins and bringing all of its elements into balance. In other words, the wood allows small amounts of oxygen to come into contact with the wine while preventing the introduction of outside bacteria that might create unwanted aromas or flavors. As Eric wrote back in 2007, "The fact is, for aging wine, no better vessel than oak barrels has yet been discovered. How those barrels are used is another question."

As for many producers of Super Tuscans like Ornellaia, I find that the entry-level wines are the ones I like the best. The new, never-before-used, and expensive casks are always reserved for the top wines -- where long-term aging is applied to "integrate" the oak flavors into the wine. The recycled casks, free of toasty and oaky flavors, are employed for these wineries' fresher-style, ready-to-drink wines. And although I'll never be one to reach for Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon or Syrah from the Tuscan coast (give me Sangiovese and Ciliegiolo, please!), I genuinely liked the black and red fruit in this wine, its honest acidity, and its lack of oakiness.

In my book, oaky may be is bad. Oak is good.



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7 comments
John wheaver
John wheaver

In Italy they talked as if barriques were modern! Not just ancient, foreign and loved by conservative Anglo-Saxons.I thought the Barolo I had 'discovered' in 1967 and written on in 1978 was being exterminated.So I started a web-site in 2005 to list the surviving producers. Try http://www.barol.org.uk/VINdaU... I've got  about 87 so far. I hope to be redundant in another 5 years.

Jeremy Parzen
Jeremy Parzen

Ghara, I like your style! :)

TQro, you make SUCH an important point. Wine marketers and the powers that be and were turned a lot of us OFF to wine. Great point. 

Jon, so true when it comes to Nebbiolo. It's such a great example, as you point out, that sometimes you need to go for something less expensive on the list. People always think expensive is better. Thanks for stopping by Houston Press.

Charles, first of all a note to everyone else: Charles Scicolone (check out his blog btw) is one of the greatest experts on Italian wine today. And he is one of my mentors in Italian wine. I call him the Obi Wan Kenobi of Italian wine and when he says, "dark side," he's talking about how Italian producers started over-oaking their wines in the 80s and 90s in the hope of selling more to Americans. Charles, it IS WONDERFUL to see you here. Thanks for reading... and don't worry, the force is still with me! :)

Crscicolone
Crscicolone

Oak is good when the wine is aged in large barrles not in barriques. I agree most of the entry level wines are better than the more expensive ones that do not have any character except oak.We must move away from the "Dark Side"

Jon Erickson
Jon Erickson

You bring to the fore one of the great tricks of navigating an unfamiliar wine list.  Many wineries choose to use stainless steel or previously used barrels for their less expensive wines.  For those that share this disdain for "oaky" wines choosing the unknown yet inexpensive Langhe Nebbiolo can be the wise decision over an unknown and pricey Barolo that may very well be slathered in new wood flavors.  It by no means tells the whole story or predicts the quality of the wine, but most producers list the vessel used for aging within their online wine datasheets.  

TQro
TQro

IMHO, Oaky wines pushed onto virgin wine drinkers by the 'American' taste-bud created an association between the two things causing many to just flat out declare wine as something 'not for me'. 

Ghara
Ghara

I prefer wines aged in clay amphora during the summer, but then I revert to oak during the winter drinking months, as I'm after that elusive vanilla that so thoroughly brightens the gloom of a snowy day.

Crscicolone
Crscicolone

Ciao Jeremy, thank you for the kind words- E'sempre un piacere

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