by Jeff Miller of Artisan Family of Wines (Seven Artisans, Sly Dog Cellars, Red Côte)
An article in Palate Press (which can be found at http://palatepress.com/2011/11/wine/putting-your-best-oak-forward/) was the inspiration for this post. The subject of oak in wine is an important one, and one I have some pretty strong opinions about.
Compared to most people, I don’t like oak that much. I certainly think oak can add to a wine’s interest and complexity. But I think wine should be about the fruit, not the oak. Oak should have, at most, a supporting role.
Yet clearly the market disagrees with me. I can’t begin to count the number of wines that I taste that have way too much oak for me. In many wines, the oak has equal place with the fruit. And in many more, the oak is the star, with the fruit playing a clearly subservient role. (No doubt, where the oak is the dominant player, that may be due to the winemaker having some seriously fruit-challenged wine to work with).
I have not hidden my less than enthusiastic attitude toward Bordeaux wines, and one of the main reasons behind this antipathy is the use of lots of oak in those wines.
Besides oak’s ability to bully out the fruit in the wine, wine also has its own tannins, tannins that, by and large, I find bitter and unpleasant on the wine’s finish. So as I add oak to wine, I also have to keep in mind that the positive effect on the wine’s flavors may be outweighed by the negative effect of the oak tannins.
So, as time goes by, I find myself using less and less oak in my wines. I’m concerned that that will result in lower consumer appeal, since oak is definitely something lots of people like a lot, even if I don’t. But I have to think (maybe hope is a better word, or even pray) that there are enough people like me, who prefer wines that stand (or fall) on their fruit, that they’ll be enough buyers for our products.
We’re just getting ready to release our 2009 Montepulciano, which is unoaked. We tried doing some trials to see if some oak would help, and I have to admit there was a lot of disagreement on the subject. But the slight preference, reinforced by my dictatorial inclinations, decided the point against oak. I think that was the right decision, as the lack of oak allows the wonderful fruit flavors of the Montepulciano grape to shine through.
Our 2011 Montepulciano is just finishing fermentation, and the fruit flavors are ravishing. (I have to admit that many of my concerns about this still less than stellar vintage are shaping up to be less of a concern as the wine actually gets made.) I suppose we’ll do some oak trials on this wine as well, but I can’t imagine that the addition of oak flavors would make this a better wine.
So that gets us back to my initial question, How much oak is too much? I would certainly answer that any level of oak that does more than frame and support the fruit flavors is too much. In many cases, I think the right oak level is none at all, as the fruit just doesn’t need it. I realize that leaves me outside the mainstream, but so be it.