To Oak or Not to Oak?
There has been a big push in recent years to reduce the use of oak in wines. Consumers apparently have had enough of the big oak butter balls, particularly when it comes to California Chardonnays, and it seems as though winemakers are listening. The current trend is using minimal amounts of oak, or in some cases, the complete elimination of oak from the ready-to-drink wine all together.
Historical Oak Barrel Use
Many centuries ago, long before industrial revolutions took hold throughout the world, the oak barrel was simply a vessel to hold wine, and wasn’t considered for other uses. It wasn’t until later that it was noticed that the oak not only served as a holding vessel, but also influenced the characteristics of the wine contained within. Over time, the oak industry developed into a complex animal, offering many different types of oak, different toasting options, and more recently more oak alternatives to the barrel in order to create unique wines based on the taste desired by the individual winemaker.
Why Use Oak?
By keeping a wine in oak barrels, there is an extraction of specific compounds from the wood, adding overall aromatic and structural complexity to the wine. Additionally, small amounts of oxygen enter the wine through the tiny pores in the wood, which react with the phenolic components of the wine to increase stability, aroma and complexity. Depending upon the type of oak used,
an oak barrel can impart unique sensory characteristics to a wine. The use of oak allows for the maturation of a fruit-forward wine into a more complex wine with fruit, oak, and other compounds derived from the interaction between the two. Oak barrels are also known to impart several desired sensory characteristics into the wine, including notes of toast, tea, tobacco, vanilla, and earthy characteristics. For red wines, the pores in the barrel staves allow for the necessary micro-oxygenation required to soften out the harsh tannins of a young wine, and to help it develop into a complex wine with soft, approachable tannins. Finally, a wine that is young can benefit from being held in oak barrels, as it helps to decrease astringency, increase color, and increase stability of the wine.
If using oak barrels is so beneficial for the flavor, aroma, complexity, and overall quality of a wine, why is there this trend to steer away from the use of oak in winemaking?
There may be several reasons for this trend, though I believe it started around the time people got a little too sick of the over-oaked, inexpensive, widely-distributed buttery Chardonnay wines from California. These types of wines all but flooded the wine market and didn’t leave consumers with many other options. Once winemakers started hearing these “cries for help” from consumers (ABC - Anything But Chardonnay), more and more wines made with less or no oak started hitting the shelves, and the consumers responded positively by purchasing much more of these wines than their over-oaked counterparts. Some would argue, however, that completely removing the oak all together creates a completely different wine and that somehow now Chardonnay was no longer Chardonnay if it was made completely without oak. What makes a Chardonnay a Chardonnay? Is it the traditionally known complex wine with both fruit and oak flavors integrating into what is thought of as a typical Chardonnay? Or is a Chardonnay one that focuses 100% on the flavor created by the grape itself, and not covered up or hiding under a blanket of oak?
There are other issues with this decreased use of oak in wines, with one of the more serious being the hardships incurred by many cooperages that specialize in making oak barrels for use in winemaking. A recent piece in The Drinks Business elaborated on this issue, and explained that this trend of more fruit-forward wines designed to be consumed immediately has caused those cooperages that produce the oak barrels have lost a great deal of business, with sales at Vicard, a maker of quality oak barrels, decreasing by upwards of 20% in recent years. While winemakers are apparently changing their methods toward producing fruit-forward wines that consumers can drink as soon as they take the bottle home from the shop, they are inadvertently causing problems for those people and businesses that make these barrels. Several of the coopers that have seen downturns in sales due to fewer oak barrels being purchased for winemaking have shifted their focus to not only sell barrels, but to also sell oak alternatives, a trend that has been increasing in popularity for both economic and sensory reasons. Speaking with The Drinks Business, Pierre Marchais, the marketing director for Vicard, spoke to this very issue saying that “…with fewer wines being aged in oak, in order to survive as a cooper you have to be flexible and able to offer alternatives”.
Using Oak Alternatives Instead of Oak Barrels
In terms of oak alternatives, there are currently many options on the market. From oak chips to oak staves, a winemaker can purchase these smaller pieces of oak to add to a stainless steel fermented wine in order to retain some oak characteristics without the use of a barrel. Some winemakers have switched to using oak alternatives mainly for economic reasons: oak barrels can cost between $400 and $1000+, while oak alternatives are markedly cheaper. Another reason why some winemakers are choosing oak alternatives instead of oak barrels is due to the savings of time created by using these alternatives: by throwing in oak chips or oak staves into the wine, the surface area of wine-to-oak is increased, thus allowing for much faster extraction of the oak characteristics into the wine. Using oak alternatives may also be attractive to wine makers, as they can use just a small amount of chips or staves in order to achieve delicate oak flavors without offending those consumers looking for less oak in their wines.
Unfortunately, the first few wines made and mass distributed that were known to have used oak chips were not very good, and thus a stigma was born that any wine made with oak alternatives is considered to be poor quality, and few people would consider purchasing these styles of wine. In fact, research has shown that consumers tend to purchase wines based on the type of wine, price, quality certification, variety, and brand. When comparing wines made using oak barrels and wine made using oak chips, one study found that consumers on average agreed they prefer wines that were made using oak barrels, and were less likely to purchase wine made using oak chips. Interestingly, these same consumers stated that if they were given the opportunity to taste the wine before purchase, they may consider buying the wine if they enjoyed the tasting experience, further confirming the notion that wines made with oak alternatives have the negative stigma of automatically being lower quality than wines made with oak barrels. Most importantly, the study found that during blind tastings, these same consumers can’t actually tell the difference in quality between wines made using oak barrels and wines make using oak chips! This suggests that the stigma these consumers had against oak chips was unjustified, since they couldn’t actually tell the difference between those wines produced in oak barrels and those produced with oak chips.
So what does this all mean? Clearly, there is this trend for consumers to avoid wines made with oak, as they have been turned off from the overly oaked wines such as those Chardonnays or Cabernets made in the past. However, do these consumers really want no oak at all? Or do they still like some oak but just not in overwhelming quantities? In my experience, while there are certainly people who enjoy unoaked wines, I’ve poured lightly oaked wines for others and have received a lot of positive responses. I think what consumers really want is balance, and not one overpowering flavor or aroma over another. In fact, a recent study on consumer willingness to pay for oak characteristics in Washington state wines found that while the fully oaked wine received a negative response from consumers (i.e. they were less willing to purchase the wine if fully oaked), the other levels of oak treatments were not significantly different in terms consumer willingness to pay. This seems to suggest that balance is what consumers want, and not “extreme oak”.
Winemakers have a lot of flexibility in terms of how to create a well-balanced and not overly oaked wine, including different types of barrels, various mixes of new and neutral barrels, as well as the use of varying amounts of oak alternatives in a stainless steel fermented wine. We’ve all seen what happens when we go to extremes (i.e. dominating oak flavors in some Chardonnays, etc), so eliminating the use of oak in ready-to-drink wines may not be the best idea, lest we want to see another “rebellion” against completely unoaked wines in the future. Proper balance and increased consumer education on the benefits of oak alternatives may be the best solution for winemakers in this current state of flux in the consumer wine market.