Thursday, April 19, 2012

Is the barrel about flavor? Some thoughts on the role that oak plays in wine

The integrating of of oak into wines has always been part of wine making and in the past 30-40 years it’s been the French oak and the American oak that is most used. The vine and the oak tree have been used together for centuries. The relationship is multifaceted and involved.

It can be used to intensify flavors. It can be very impressive. It can add depth and structure. But the overuse can make it excessive and disproportionate. Racking and oak age are important to consider; so is maturation and the toast levels using steam or fire and of course the grapes themselves that each acts differently in the barrel and reading the terroir’s effect.

Is the barrel about flavor? Many serious winemakers say no. it’s about a balance between the fruit range, oxygen and durability of the wine. But you can imagine how it all comes into play.

American oak is white oak or Quercus alba. It has a noted vanilla or coconut nuance which can provide cutting tannins. It is also capable of unleashing sweet, gentle broad character.

French oak is from either the pedunculate oak, robur or sessile oak. It is understated, nuttier and smokier with softer tannins. Some say French oak gives a more traditional or classic feel which allow the terroir to come out more strongly.

Some of  high-end oaks are Taransaud, Darnajou and Dominique Laurent. Tarnasaud really takes a while for the elegant complexity to kick in and then Wow! Darnajou tends infuses itself in the wine throughout which is a characteritic that is enjoyable and Dominique Laurent and his nicknamed "magic casks" that are very exclusive.

Either way…a few thoughts on oak barrels and how it’s the partnership that counts. It’s a relationship of wine aesthetics that help make up the magic of wines pleasure.

A quick example, a friend brought over one of these high altitude Malbec's...3400 feet in elevation. It's one the latest crazes. Why? Becuause the water has to struggle to get up to the grapes; and the coolness of the climate makes for slower riping, which is interesting for this grape.

Now the kicker...It has 50% New French Oak and 50% New American Oak.

It makes you think about the fuit hiding behind the powerful oak and its aging potential and the tannins that it delivers. Toasty vanilla and caramel, big and bordeaux-like in its grip. Overall it was a really great wine.