How much oak?

by Jeff Miller of Artisan Family of Wines (Seven Artisans, Sly Dog Cellars, Red Côte)

jeff-smI was reading Palate Press’s article on the use of oak in Italian wines. The post can be found at “Vino 2011: To Oak or Not To Oak”, http://palatepress.com/2011/03/wine/vino-2011-to-oak-or-not-to-oak/

This article led me think it was time to revisit the whole subject of oak in wine, and particularly how much is enough, or whether any should be used at all.

In my life as both a consumer and winemaker, my attitude towards oak has undergone a profound change. Where ten years ago, I liked a lot of oak in my wines, I’ve done a 180 and now like little if any. Of course, how much you like oak is a matter of personal preference. In the Palate Press article, it came through loud and clear that Americans like oak more than people in other countries do, for example.

I know personally I think two things have moved me away from a liking for heavily oaked wines. First, the oak tends to substitute or even mask the fruit flavors of the wine. The more time I spend tasting wine, the more I find I prefer the unadulterated fruit flavors of lightly oaked wines. Second, oak has a special type of tannin that’s different in quality from grape tannins. I find with the passage of time these oak tannins are less and less appealing to me, being, in my view, harsh on the finish.

Not mentioned in the Palate Press article is the whole and important subject of use of oak early in the fermentation. This requires the use of some sort of oak alternative, as opposed to barrels. Most common is the use of what’s commonly called oak dust, which is a very fine ground up oak. Normally it’s untoasted. It’s main purpose is to bring out more color in the wine, something which I think it does very well. If it’s not overdone, I find that any oak flavor this adds to the wine disappears within a couple of months of it’s addition. I do add untoasted American oak dust at the crusher, and like the results. They don’t seem to add any of the oak tannins that I find objectionable when they are added later in the winemaking process after fermentation.

So, I’ve moved from liberal to light use of oak. By light, I mean a level of oak that’s definitely in the background, allowing fruit, rather than spice, flavors to dominate the wine. I think of this level of oak as framing the fruit flavors, not dominating them.

I’m going to be bottling some Montepulciano in the relatively near future, and I think I’m going to probably bottle it without any oak at all for a couple of reasons. First, I really like the wine just as it is. Second, Montepulciano is a relative unknown to the American wine consumer, and I’d like to present it in an unadulterated form so that the grape can be appreciated without any confusion from oak influence.

If going from heavy to light oak treatment has been my natural progression, then the next obvious step is to dispense with oak altogether for most or all of our wines. Time will tell how far I’m willing to go down that path.

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