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The Essence of Wine: Oak


Image © 2013 Leigh Beisch

Few have actually spent time gnawing on a piece of oak, but some know the scent well enough, having perused the selections at their local lumber yard. Some may have even tried their hand at drilling, cutting or planing in the service of one or another project. Many more know the flavor of oak, even if they never identify it as such, thanks to the popularity of whisky, rye, and bourbon, all of which usually taste of planks cut from American forests. The oak we find in wine, on the other hand, more often hails from France (though wine barrels are manufactured from forests all over Europe). The interaction between wine and the wooden vessels used to make and age it is one of the few things in the world that approaches alchemy. Oak smooths, sweetens, spices, and polishes wines in ways that range from imperceptible to completely ostentatious. In some wines, oak announces its presence with more texture than flavor, while in others it screams like a cross-cut saw in mid-bite. Opinions differ on whether the flavor of oak is best when strong or subtle, but none can deny that wine as we know it could never have come to be without wood.

Girard "Artistry" Proprietary Red, Napa Valley, California, USA
Sea Smoke "One Barrel" Pinot Noir, Santa Barbara County, California, USA
Samuels Gorge Grenache McLaren Vale, South Australia
Alois Kracher "Nummer 5 Nouvell Vague" Traminer Trockenbeerenauslese, Burgenland, Austria
Opus One Bordeaux Blend, Oakville, Napa, California, USA
Takler "Regnum" Red Blend, Szekszard, Hungary
Domaine Thibault Liger-Belair "Les Saint-Georges" Nuits-Saint-George Premier Cru, Burgundy, France
Cantine Russo "Rampante" Red Blend, Etna, Sicily, Italy
Covenant "Lavan" Chardonnay, Russian River Valley, Sonoma, California, USA

This is part of an ongoing series of original images and prose called The Essence of Wine

Comments (5)

rtrvrtrnr wrote:
08.09.13 at 12:44 PM

You probably didn't intend to get this technical in your essay above, but can you elaborate (hit the highlights) of effect on the wine of different species and origin of oak. In other words, how much of the oak itself has terroir?

Cody Rasmussen wrote:
08.09.13 at 6:10 PM

Alder, that wine list must have been the most difficult yet!

Alder wrote:
08.12.13 at 9:16 AM

Ah, right. That's an honors thesis if I ever did hear of one.

In my opinion, everything that grows in the earth has "terroir." So lets get that out of the way right off the bat.

But is that terroir perceivable when it comes to wine? That's a harder question to answer. Talk with any cooper and they will tell you that oak from different forests definitely have different properties. The tightness of the grain and the porosity of the wood are definitely different between American, French, and say, Slavonian oak.

We also know that American oak and French oak just taste different, in part due to the aforementioned differences in their properties. But some of the differences that might exist between, say, two different forests in France, are somewhat erased by the processing of the wood (toasting it). And given that different coopers can produce barrels that taste so differently while using the same oak from the same forests, it seems a stretch to imagine that differences in forest might actually impact the wine.

anonymous wrote:
08.16.13 at 3:46 AM

Good article. Portugal uses very different suppliers to produce wine on the oaks. English, American, French, Hungarian and perhaps even more. Barrels are used special for Oporto, Moscatel de Setúbal, red wines from very different regions. great article.

09.17.13 at 9:59 AM

It's interesting to take not of the different factors that go into creating and aging wine. Wine aged in French oak barrels is a practice that enhances subtle flavors in wine and is commonly practiced in many wineries. Thanks for sharing this post.

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