Tolerance is not my strong suit. At least not when it comes to oak in wine. Nothing ruins my enjoyment of a good bottle more than the flavours being swathed in a cloak of vanilla or wood shavings. The merest suggestion of roasted coconut strikes horror into my refined, delicate soul. Wine is supposed to be made from grapes after all, not from timber.
I want to taste fruit, with a side order of sense-of-place. Who knows what that tastes like, but this is – as any fule kno – why we are here. And to make sure it is not obscured by wood, there are now so many alternatives to barrels: amphorae, tinajas, qvevris and concrete eggs are not only an Instagrammer’s dream, they allow that all important ageing to take place without imparting woody flavours.
Thank goodness then, that the age of overt oak abuse is surely in terminal decline. In decades past, every winemaker dreamt of a wall of their own new barriques. In the 1990s, it was cool to boast ‘200% new oak’ on the back label, while the first wave of superstar wine critics still swooned over great gobs of pain grillé and cinnamon toast. But we’ve moved on. Oak is not just passé, it’s practically a crime.
At least, it’s easy to believe this spiel if you read the more recherché wine critics or listen to natural wine zealots like myself. But have we been a mite economic with the truth? Could it be that the rest of the world still secretly bathes in buttery Chardonnay and craves those spiced cigar box aromas?
Knackered Mother’s Wine Club author and ex-supermarket wine buyer Helen McGinn is not shy on the matter. “The wine thought police say oak is bad but the consumer says something completely different” she told me, adding “You only have to look at how much people love Rioja. They’re not necessarily even making the connection that it’s oak. It’s just that fuller flavour, it’s seductive”. She also admitted to being “an absolute oak slut” herself.
I asked the ever diplomatic Justin Howard-Sneyd MW for his take. Justin spent years working as a flying winemaker and as a wine club buyer, and now makes wine at his own estate in Languedoc. He feels that “there’s been an unnecessary backlash against oak” [from wine critics] and added that “It’s much easier to sell a wine for a bit more money if there’s a little bit of discernable oak.” To put that another way, most wine drinkers make a clear association between the perception of oak and a higher quality wine. Randall Grahm, owner and winemaker at the renowned Bonny Doon estate in California, confirmed this. He told me “It’s not terribly surprising that oak is a stand in for wine quality – it’s a recognisable flavour.”
Feeling suitably chastened at being part of that “unnecessary backlash”, I gathered round my supporters. I once asked Etna winemaking legend Frank Cornelissen why he’s never used barrels. “I love forests” he said disarmingly, “I prefer to keep the wood where it belongs”.
Charles Lachaux, fifth generation winemaker at his family’s Domaine Arnoux-Lachaux in Vosne-Romanée, is headed down a similar tree-free path. Since Lachaux took the helm in 2012, his guiding principle in both vineyard and cellar has been the achievement of purity in the wine and the return to “the way we did things in the past”. What that means in practice is a move to biodynamic viticulture, bush trained vines, whole cluster fermentations for almost everything, and a gradual move away from barrels towards Italian ceramic vessels – essentially, a modern form of amphorae.
Lachaux is keen to point out that this happened organically, and that it forms no part of the domaine’s marketing. He became frustrated with the risks associated with barrels and hygiene – and with the discrepancies. “When you put the wine in barrels” he told me “ three days later, each barrel tastes different”. And lest anyone should mistake Lachaux for an obscure radical, it’s worth pointing out that his wines are now pretty much unobtainable for less than four figures a bottle. Furthermore, by Burgundy standards Domaine Arnoux-Lachaux is significant, totalling 14 hectares with a production of around 30,000 bottles a year.
There are many similar examples in that other bastion of oak-influenced winemaking, Bordeaux. Take biodynamics exponent Alain Moueix, who makes wine at both Château Fonroque in St. Emilion and Château Mazeyres in Pomerol. Moueix uses a significant proportion of cement tanks and neutral 1,000 litre barrels, in place of the more universally adopted barrique. His wines unquestionably show the grandeur and finesse of their appellations, but without the overt wood signature of many of their peers.
In the Medoc, Osamu Uchida has become famous for his Cabernet Sauvignon, produced from a tiny vineyard just a few 100 yards from Mouton-Rothschild. Half the wine is aged in amphora, the other in used 500 litre barrels. The message is clear: oak is barely necessary if the terroir is spectacular and the viticulture exemplary. In fact, it’s often just a distraction.
Admittedly this is rarefied territory, talking about wines that sell for between £50 – £1,500. It’s invariably lower down the scale where noticeable oak is still most desirable. Or at least, something like oak. If you like drinking oaky wines in the sub-£10 bracket, rest assured that no barrels were harmed in their production. Rather, a handful of oak chips were almost certainly added to the tank – a popular solution as it costs a tiny fraction compared to the major investment in a barrel. This prompted another question in my mind: is there any reason to chip a wine, other than to create this caricature of woody flavours for customers who apparently desire it?
Randall Grahm has used oak chips as a antioxidant, and as an aid to stabilise the colour of a fermenting wine. But he admits that this is the exception rather than the rule. “Most people use oak chips as a flavouring component” he conceded. Howard-Sneyd made me aware of a slightly different angle, explaining “There are good quality chips these days, and they can be better than a bad barrel.”
Be that as it may, oak chips are of most relevance in mass produced wine. So I figured I’d get better insights if I talked to a winemaker doing things on a major scale.
Hartley Smithers is the Australian head winemaker at one of Romania’s largest wineries, Cramele Recas. He’s responsible for the production of up to 25 million bottles of wine a year. And it turns out he is not remotely a fan of oak or barrels. “We use barrels because the consumer demands it” he told me with evident frustration. He insists that he cannot tell the difference between a wine aged in barrel versus one produced with oak chips or staves.
He posits “If you were to make a coffee, would you really make a vessel out of coffee, and then try to extract the coffee flavour like that? It’s madness!”, before going on to describe barrels as “a waste of trees” and suggesting that “they should all be turned into flower pots”. I suspect he conveniently ignored the gentle micro-oxidative ageing quality of barrels to lend weight to his argument.
Smither’s point fascinated me nonetheless. He asserts that it is not winemakers driving the popularity of oaky wines at all, but rather wine drinkers, describing it as a “self-perpetuating circle”. It’s a theme that resonates with many. Charles Lachaux admitted that there might be some negative reaction to his move away from oak, but says he doesn’t care. “It’s better for the wine, it’s more pure and precise”, he told me. Randall Grahm posed the rhetorical question “How do you tell people that their taste is wonky?” And this is the eternal sticking point – mass-market taste will always diverge from the needs of specialists or connoisseurs.
If you become a coffee geek, those over-roasted, chocolatey espresso blends soon start to taste gross and simplistic. Serious beer aficionados got bored of hopped-up IPAs decades ago. Oak in wine inhabits a similar space. To the newbie, it’s an exciting flavour that signals quality and gives a pat on the back for recognition. But with more experience, upfront oak aromas or flavours start to feel vulgar and unwelcome. This is how I justify my wood phobia, and I’m sticking with it.
But hey, don’t feel bad if you still crave oaky wine. In terms of numbers, you’re still on the winning team.