It’s damned well time someone did something. About oak, that is. Its abuse in winemaking has been rampant for years, and it’s time to call out the wine police.
But first, let me say something completely contradictory, but true: There is nothing wrong with oak in wine, usually. Indeed, for ages, oak casks have been the vessel of choice for winemakers during wine’s fermentation and aging. Here in the United States, Robert Mondavi is largely credited for educating American winemakers about the use of oak and its various types.
So, what’s the problem? The problem is that while oak in itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing—in fact, it can be a very good thing—oak intervention in New World (and increasingly, Old World) winemaking is resulting in out-of-balance wines that, unfortunately, tend to please unsophisticated (yes, I’m a snob) palates. A dead giveaway of overly oaked wine is the description, all too familiar, of “toasty oak.” As wine writer Matt Kramer says, “Toasty oak is the hidden sugar of wine processing. It provides flavor where, like canned peas, there’s not much else there.” The American wine palate has been reared on oak. We don’t know any better. So today, you find winemakers catering to that palate by even oaking wines like Sauvignon Blanc, which were once devoid of the stuff. Maybe it’s no surprise that a culture that relishes fake tits and too much makeup also favors fake wine flavors and wines that have tarted up with gaudy makeup in the form of oak.
But, it’s not just happening here. In Italy, makers of Barbera are tarting that wine up with oak. In part, that’s to make it more accessible, since Barbera traditionally is an acidic wine with a rubbery-petrol aroma—not too appealing, perhaps, so why not just add oak to make it taste like something other than what it really is? The result is Barbera with training wheels.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to ban oak from winemaking. I’d just like to see a little restraint. Increasingly, winemakers are intervening in the winemaking process by using it to make otherwise unpalatable wines pleasant. Contrast that to the subtle use of oak, by aging wine in oak barrels to complement the wine, not doctor it up or hide defects.
One of the reasons I loathe over-oaked wines is that I love to eat. What’s one got to do with the other? Well, oaky wines are not, typically, good ones to pair with food. Oak flavors are accentuated and amplified by food. So, unless you like the taste of lumber, I recommend staying away from heavily oaked wines at the dinner table. Lightly or minimally oaked wine fares much better with food. If you must drink oaky wine with food, I suggest trying to match the wood and smoke flavors in the wine to compatible foods. For example, a young Petite Syrah—with its toasty, smoky flavors and aromas—would overpower anything alongside it except, perhaps, meats from the smoker, blackened dishes and such.
A good example—albeit a much more subtle one than I’m talking about here—of different uses of oak by winemakers is illustrated in a blog I did recently called Perfect Pair: Burgers & Bucklin. I won’t recount the details here, but simply comparing two very good wines made from identical grapes—Bucklin Old Hill Ranch Zinfandel 2007 and Ravenswood Old Hill Zinfandel 2007—reveals two very different approaches to the use of oak. Get yourself a bottle of each and taste them head-to-head to discover the different between oaky restraint and intervention.