What Oak Does for Wine

Some time ago, we got invited to a lunch and wine tasting featuring wines from Rioja, Spain. Not only were there some amazing wines, the winemaker was there and led us through a flight of the same red wine aged in different types of oak barrels.

Now, normally, Anne scoffs at tastings like this. Tasting wine based on what oak it was aged in is the sort of thing that wine snobs turn into exercises in precious without breathing hard. And they suck all the joy out of it in the process, too.

The other reason Anne scoffs is that the potential for groupthink in these situations is so high that whatever results you get are darned near pointless. What is groupthink? It’s what happens when people are in a group and someone says A, someone else agrees and the next thing you know, everyone is going along with it, us being the social critters that we are.

It’s how Riedel sells their variety-specific glasses. I don’t doubt their reps honestly believe that a type of wine actually tastes better in a specific glass. But I’ll bet they won’t let you do a tasting blind and/or by yourself, which we did. The wine works better in a specific glass because they keep telling you it will, and someone agrees and next thing you know, the whole room is going along with it.

But what made this Rioja tasting different is that the winemaker wasn’t trying to sell us on any one wine. He was merely trying to explain why he used different types of oak barrels to age his wine in.

Now, here’s the thing about oak. Once upon a time, all wine was aged in oak barrels. Or wood barrels, but since oakwood was particularly good for making barrels, that’s what folks used. And because steel was insanely expensive and difficult to manipulate, it was put to better use as swords and other stuff. Even after the Industrial Revolution made big-ass metal containers easier to make and cheaper to sell, oak kind of hung on in the winery because old habits die hard and there wasn’t a clear benefit to using big-ass metal containers, at least, not right away, there wasn’t. That the wine picked up flavors from the wood, well, that was part of the flavor of wine.

Eventually, however, stainless steel tanks started showing up in wineries and winemakers realized that they could make white wines, in particular, taste really good without all that woody flavor. The red wines, not so much.

What oak barrels do is add a certain creaminess (lactic acid) to wine. In addition, because they are not completely air-tight, a tiny bit of the wine evaporates and the wine left inside is left with more intense flavor.

The interesting thing about oak is that it’s actually a plant and it’s affected by the same things that grape vines are. So oak from different places in the world adds slightly different flavors to the wine that’s aged in it.

It’s not a huge difference. It’s pretty subtle, in fact. You’re not going to taste a wine blind and know that it was aged in Hungarian rather than French oak. That’s the precious nonsense that makes Anne so crazy. But if you taste a wine that was aged in American barrels side by side with the same wine aged in French and/or Hungarian barrels, you can taste a slight difference. That’s kind of fun.

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