SANTA ROSA — John Parducci, one of California's greatest wine makers and a man who does not prefer the taste of oak in his wines, once said, "If you want oak, go chew on a two-by-four," or words to that effect.
Yet, Americans seem smitten by oak flavor in their Cabernet Sauvignons, in their Chardonnays and even in wines that clearly would do as well with no oak whatever. If this trend continues, I anticipate some day a winery selling a bottle full of wine-dipped toothpicks.
Since Americans like the taste and smell of oak in their wine, wine makers accommodate them. They oak the most delicate of wines and strip from them the very elements that may give them some passing resemblance to the grapes from which they were made.
To say which came first is a chicken-and-egg sort of argument. I can't be certain whether Americans demanded oak so wine makers gave it to them, or whether a few wine makers over-oaked a few wines, the wines received plaudits, and that gave other wine makers a great idea.
Either way, oak is here and it will be with us for at least the remainder of the current generation--a generation that has been carefully taught that if a little oak is a good thing, a lumber factory is wonderful.
(This should be a reminder to us all that sometimes the wines that win the highest praise are, after all, only one style of wine. And that equally as good are wines with little or no oak that taste of the grape, but which, for lack of "oomph," get none of their richly deserved praise.)
As a part-time wine evaluator, I have a debate on my hands with this recent "more is better" school of wine making. On one hand, I realize that big, full-flavored, oak-scented wines will be appreciated by a lot of people. So when I'm evaluating wine, I understand and deal accordingly with such brooding giants.
I, on the other hand, love wine that speaks of the grape, wines that offer delicacy. And when I'm not evaluating wine but consuming it with dinner, I try to ignore the big guys and go after subtlety.
A discussion of oak came up the other day when I was conducting a tasting of newly released Merlots. A few of the wines clearly had a lot of oak, evidence of aging in new French-made barrels, and a few of the tasters noted that the oak character was a little strong for the fruit in the wine.
Other tasters admitted that the wines in question were oaky, sure, but that they had ample amounts of fruit and would obviously be great wines with a few years of bottle age.
The debate, I suggested, really centered on the individual's tolerance for oak. If you were raised to like a lot of oak in wine, then you're drawn to oaky wine; anything less is too simple, too innocuous. If you were raised, conversely, on wine that smells and tastes like grapes, then oaky wine bores you. It bores me.
But I am being won over to the oaky style of wine if only because California (and to a degree Australia) does it so well. Oak can be a seductive element in wine, especially great Cabernet Sauvignon, and after a while you can be smitten by its charms.
But what is this element that intrigues us all so much? What does it smell like and taste like?
That, unfortunately, is a difficult thing to pinpoint because putting into words the precise aroma and flavor components of oak can't be done easily with standard English terms. Moreover, there is the question of what kind of oak are we talking about. There is French oak and there is American oak, and usually they are miles apart in terms of flavor components.
The Oak of Choice
French oak is the oak of choice in the fine wine districts of California, even though it is far more expensive than the American variety--at $400 a barrel it's nearly twice as much as the domestic oak barrels.
French oak tends to give a subtler character when it is young; American oak is a bit more pungent. But as barrels age, they become neutral and impart little if any oak to wine. The life cycle of a wine barrel is about five years. After that it's merely a vessel in which to hold wine, not impart character.
French oak can have a vanilla/chocolate kind of aroma and the perfume of it can be heady. It lends to a red wine, especially, a kind of cedary tone and can imply roasted nuts.
American oak aromas are more direct, more obvious. When American oak barrels are used young and raw, a major component of the aroma of the wine that goes into it is dill weed or pickle barrel. More faintly, it gives an impression of pine, resin or green olives.
(The differences between these two oaks is more a product of their manufacture than of the trees themselves, and if the inside of a barrel is toasted by fire, the character of the barrel changes radically. But that's a story for another day.)
The choice of which oak to use is often based on price. Most wine makers know that French oak's character is more subtle and traditional and that Americans tend to like French oak character in wine better than American oak.