The pros & cons of oak barrels

Toasting French Barrels.

Although oak barrels have been used for centuries, there is not a more controversial or misunderstood practice in the world of wine. In the week I wrote this article, no less than three major wine publications have feature articles addressing the value of oak barrels in winemaking. With the cost of a new barrel sitting between $500 and $1,500, depending on their origin, rest assured winemakers endeavor to use them only when the quality and price benefits justify it.

So why the backlash? Well, part of it is just a bad rap. Case in point: if you don’t like butter in your Chardonnay, oak has nothing to do with that because that is a product of the diacetyl molecule produced from malolactic fermentation. Almost all wines undergo this process; it just expresses itself more in Chardonnay. Also low-alcohol zealots can stop blaming oak because there is also no relationship between oak and higher alcohol content.

What barrels do create is a controlled oxygen exposure that aids in the proper development of the wine and a richer mouth feel.

What barrels do create is a controlled oxygen exposure that aids in the proper development of the wine and a richer mouth feel. New barrels also impart flavors such as vanilla, spices, coconut and smoke. Many winemakers are scaling back on barrel use because these components can overpower and obscure the character of the wine itself, especially in white wines because they lack the tannin structure that can integrate and benefit from those flavors.

Oak at work

French barrels are at the top of the food-cost chain and American barrels are at the bottom. French oak is considered to be more subtle and finessed in its effect on wine. Science does not always support this and part of American oak’s bad reputation stems from the early use of untoasted barrels. All barrels are now toasted, which tames the stronger and less attractive influences. Many high-end producers use American Oak with great results: think Ridge, Silver Oak and most of the best wines of Rioja.

With the cost of new barrels and the extra labor that barrel aging necessitates, you can bet that only premium-priced wines use new barrels. It stands to reason that if a wine sells for less than $25, there is little chance it has significant new-oak influence. Lower-priced wines get their oak input from older barrels, oak staves, chips, powders and — scare bleu — oak liquids. Fear not; these are not always horrid or even inferior, depending on the wine, the product used and the skill of the winemaker.

At the end of the day, oak is neither inherently good nor bad, but rather another tool in the winemaker’s toolbox/spice rack. And it’s hard to argue that the utilization of quality barrels is a major component in many of the world’s most esteemed wines.