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Oak was traditionally used as a container in which to store or transport wine. In the past 30 years, however, the importance of oak for fermentation and ageing has been understood to a much greater extent. It is often said that wines are ‘over-oaked’. The standard reply to this is that the oak was ‘under-wined’. That is, the grapes used to make the wine lacked the depth of flavour to stand up to fermentation in oak. When made with suitable fruit, oak adds complexity and texture to white wine (eg. Meursault), while ageing red wines in oak helps to soften the tannins, which gives a more supple and complete wine that will age better in bottle. The effect on the finished wine varies according to a series of choices made by the winemaker:
– French vs American Oak: French oak has a tighter grain, higher tannin and lower aromatics, giving more subtle, savoury notes of coffee, cloves and smoke, while American oak provides more obvious sweet vanilla to creamy coconut overtones.
– New vs Used Oak: New barrels impart the most flavour but are expensive and usually reserved for premium wines.
Many winemakers use a mix of new and used barrels to avoid over-oaking more delicate wines. By their third use, the barrels’ effect on the wine is relatively neutral.
– Light/Medium vs Heavy Toast: The greater the depth of ‘toast’ (or charring) that the inside of the barrel receives during its construction, the lesser the degree that the wood flavour/tannin is leached into the wine by the alcohol. Aromatic white varieties, such as Riesling and Viognier, are usually matured in stainless steel tank as the pure grape aromas that are intrinsic to the character of their wines rarely benefit from exposure to oak.