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Back labels on wine bottles seem to carry a bewildering amount of information on the value of oak in winemaking – often more than a wine drinker might readily want to digest! But when a winemaker spends $800 on a single barrel made from French oak (and not a whole lot less for one of American oak) it is perhaps understandable that he or she becomes a little verbose, weighing you down with issues of “center-of-the-forest wood” and “air-dried staves” and “char.” So let’s try and take all this from the beginning.
As you know, oak can be counted on to improve the flavor of a wine. The question for the winemaker is what kind of flavor does he or she want? Most of today’s most popular wine types – Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet – rely upon complexity and nuance in their taste to mark the differences, and they are generally better complemented by the subtler taste and softer wood tannins imparted by French oak. More robust wines such as Zinfandel from California’s Mendocino County, the Tempranillo and Garnacha blends from Spain’s Rioja region, and some of the Cabernet /Shiraz wines of Australia, are better matched by the bolder, woodier, sweeter notes conveyed by American oak barrels.
The variables in oak, however, are not just marked by country of origin. There is the question of the “grain” of the wood. Trees with “tighter grain” produce barrels that impart fewer tannins than those made from more porous or “wider grain” trees. And there is also the issue of “charring,” where the inside of the finished barrel is fired, often to a winemakers personal specifications, in order to release further taste components into the finished wine. High char will add to the wine notes of toast and spice, while low char wines may taste ‘oaky’ or ‘woody’.
As the study of wine and oak progresses, winemakers will continue to push the envelope with new ideas. And all this is sure to guarantee that there will be plenty of “oak talk” on the back of our wine bottles for some time to come.