How much oak is too much?

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

jeff-smAn 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.

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12 Responses to “How much oak is too much?”

  1. Cheers to your palate and dedication to making wines you believe in, not scores. I have written and espoused restraint on oak use since my blog launched, and last year when I started my first commercial vintage for my tiny label Two Shepherds, I put my money where my mouth was, knowing it would restrict my audience. All my reds, including Syrah, are aged in 100% neutral oak.
    I look forward to trying your wine!

  2. Donn Rutkoff says:

    I have an open question. At school, I was taught that tannin has no taste, only texture. We can feel it but not taste it. So, if I taste something bitter, it is not tannin, but other components that have not ripened yet that accompany an over-abundance of tannin. But I continue to read about bitter tannin, sweet tannin, etc.
    Jeff, what say you?
    Anybody have input?
    The bitter stuff in seeds and stems must be acids? Amino acids?
    Thanks.

  3. gdfo says:

    I have to agree with most of what you stated.

    Wine should not be about an oaktree but the vine.

    Oak should be used as a tool not the end result. Consider also that if you are eating food that is fatty along with high amounts of refined carbohydrates then perhaps the oak in wine seems to compliment that type of diet. Or it could just be cultural brainwashing.

    Personally, I believe the wine industry and wine culture in the US is relatively young still and will mature. When the economy gets on the correct track and vineyards and wineries settle down to steady and continous ownership that will be one step in maturation process.

  4. Dawn says:

    I, too, think there is an increasing trend that allows the barrel to dominate the flavor profile. A judicious amount of oak does make the wine more interesting, adding complexity and layers. However, I personally HATE those vanilla bombs that are becoming more and more prevalent. When I encounter these type of wines, I can’t help but wonder what it is that they are trying to hide. The disappointing issue with a lot of these wines is that they tend to win more awards since they stand out so loudly in comparison to the more subtle, varietal-focused wines and thus are pushed as being the sought-after style. Bummer. I feel sorry for those that buy into this hype, as they are missing out on all that makes wine so great. One can only hope that this, too, shall pass…

  5. Michael Peters says:

    Make wines that the consumer wants to drink…

    Oak should always be in a supporting role…yet it is amazing how our much we love the flavors that oak brings to the table!!!!

    Cheers
    Michael

  6. Richard Davis says:

    The water bending process utilized most notably by French Tonnellerie Dargaud et Jaegle minimizes the oak tannins in the barrels and provides a wonderful platform for the fruit to be expressed. As mentioned here, the oak supports the fruit rather than over-powering it. It is the process(water bending) most utilized in the fruit driven wines of Burgundy for good and purposeful reasons.

  7. Alvera Kan says:

    I was so pleased to read your opinion concerning oak in our wines. I had to relinquish drinking Chardonnay because of the over oaking. I can’t stand it! All the fruit of the wine is deminished because of the oak. I am sure the termites would love it.

    Thank you, thank you.

    I have a small cabarnet vineyard in the Napa Valley and the winemaker is French so there is very little oak.

  8. Christy says:

    After reading your article, I feel compelled to point out a important point-not all barrels and cooperages are created equal. You imply a barrel is a barrel and since all barrels are detectable they are undesirable. However, there’s a huge difference between “structure” and “impact” barrels.
    Structure barrels work behind the scenes- boosting fruit, building the mid-palate and and extending the finish. However, you shouldn’t actually taste or smell them. The only way you can define their impact is tasting against a neutral oak sample and realizing how much structure they add to the wine.
    Impact barrels are very apparent-adding wood tannins, smokey aromatics, vanilla and sweetness to the wine. They can felt on the nose, the attack and the finish and are quite obvious in their impact.
    To say that the best oak is no oak sweeps everything into one pile. I know far too many wines who would be shadows of themselves without the judicious of new oak.

  9. admin says:

    i would assume the spam filter got it. this one got through, so i assume if you repost it i would get it. i approve all non-spam comments (ie i don’t censor comments in any way other than spam)

  10. admin says:

    I was taught the same, so when I say bitter (which is technically a taste) I think I must really be referring to something in the tannins that is analogous to bitterness, even if, technically, it’s not the same thing. What I’m referring to is the tight, drying effect on the finish that you get with oak tannins.

  11. admin says:

    I see your comment now, so i’m posting it.

  12. Julien Weiller says:

    Agreed. Except when tannins are desirable for a wine to age graciously. Unfortunately that is a trend also disapearing. Some of the best wines I ever tasted were old Bordeaux where the tannins so integrated they had melted in a ‘je ne sais quoi’ of goodness. If I’d like to taste those nectars when still young I might as well enjoy chewing tea bags.

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