Leggy and luscious: Oaky - the other four-letter word
July 25th, 2011
09:15 AM ET
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This is the second installment of Leggy and Luscious, wherein Jill Billante, a Senior Producer at AC360°, studies at the American Sommelier Association. She's quite tall and she enjoys great wine.

When you hear people talk about "oaky" wine, what comes to mind? Are you thinking to yourself, "obviously Chardonnay," or is that just me? More specifically, I think of a California Chardonnay. Do you love an "oaky" wine or do you hate it? Do you judge people who ask for an oaky Chardonnay?

I've noticed an oak backlash as of late. Those who still wholeheartedly admit they love an oaky, buttery Chardonnay may find they're the recipient of snooty stares and full-on judgment, possibly along the lines of "that's so 1999."

So what's behind the backlash? The sad truth, fellow wine-lovers, is that some winemakers have been abusing oak. In many instances, oak has become a crutch. Some winemakers use oak to flavor a wine that doesn't have, well, much flavor.

Sometimes there is so much oak you feel like you're chomping on a stick, and despite the above mention of California, that is certainly not an indictment of all California wines. There are plenty of other over-oak offenders out there: California doesn't have a monopoly on over-oaking.

Over a barrel
So, have the over-oakers ruined it for everyone? Definitely not. Barrels are elemental to wine making. Stainless steel didn't make the scene until later in the evolution of wine-making.

What the wine is aged in, stainless steel or wood barrel, is one of the three main components of wine flavor along with the taste of the grape varietal and the terroir. Barrels give the wine flavor characteristics, while stainless steel does not. Stainless steel is used by winemakers who want an anaerobic aging process and want the grape and terroir flavor to shine. It's also cheaper than a barrel.

Winemakers use oak barrels for more than flavor. Barrels allow a small amount of oxygen into the wine, which changes its structure. The wood softens the wine, taking out some of the sharper angles that are more commonly found in stainless steel fermented wines. Wood also imparts tannins that can felt between the lip and gum, unlike grape tannins that hit the top of the tongue.

Oak is expensive, it loses most of its flavor after one use and the more wine that is in direct contact with the barrel, the more oak flavor you get. A small barrel gives the wine more oak flavor.

With the basics out of the way, that's the last time I'm going to use the word "oaky." My wine sensei at the American Sommelier Association, Andrew Bell, wants you and me to strike that descriptor from our tasting lexicon. Why? Because winemakers and wine pros don't use this term. Why? Because there are seven basic flavors that comprise what many commonly refer to as an o___ taste.

When you can identify these flavors independent of the general term "oak," you can be more specific about what kind of wine you like and why. This allows you to expand and experience wines from different producers and regions you may not have thought of before.

It was harder than I thought it would be to stop describing a wine as o___. It's reflexive. So how does one break this nasty habit? The keys to unlocking next chapter in the bacchanal bible are about to be revealed.

Seven words for oak
Winemakers mainly use new French or American oak. If a wine has been aged in French oak, the wine will smell and/or taste of smoke, toast, caramel, vanilla or butterscotch. For example, you may smell toast, but taste vanilla. Remember when tasting, that the first sip is a palate primer and to really pick up all the flavors the wine offers; wine should be sniffed and sipped twice more.

If a wine has been aged in American Oak, then it will present flavors of coconut and dill. I think that's an unusual taste in a wine, but it can be lovely. In my experience thus far, I've been able to taste only dill. The coconut has proved more elusive. Have you picked up either of these tastes in your wine? Riojas and Australian Shiraz are both good wines to try as they are traditionally aged in American Oak.

Of course, then there are the variables. Winemakers, I've found, are not a linear bunch: it isn't all black and white, or red and white. They mix it up; some wine is aged in stainless steel and French Oak. I recently sipped a lovely red that was aged in both American and French Oak.

As for a word on butter: buttery is a characteristic often ascribed to oak, a common misconception. Winemakers put wine through a second fermentation, referred to as malolactic fermentation. This process, malo for those in the know, is the conversion of malic into lactic acid creating diacetyl. This element - diacetyl - in a hot climate creates a buttery creamy feeling and taste and adds roundness.

There is no shame in liking wine that has gorgeous, complex caramel, vanilla or toast scents and tastes. The only crime is not being able to know what you like and why. So, empower yourself tell your sommelier that you want a wine that has flavors of vanilla or caramel and if you're presented with something that tastes like a 2×4, send it back and try again - or you could do what my instructor would, and order a beer.

Andrew's Picks

French Oak
Classic examples are any Premier Cru to Grand Cru Burgundy
Domaine Taupenot-Merme Charmes Chambertin Grand Cru

Any growth Bordeaux like:
Château Lascombes Margaux
Château La Grange St Julien

American Oak
Whereas Rioja is more commonly associated with American, there are many producers in Spain who still use American oak. The classic historical style of Australian Shiraz also had an affinity for American oak. The 'modern' style of both Rioja and Australian Shiraz have moved towards the integration of French oak for a softened style.

American and French Oak
Sleeping Giant Napa Cabernet

Sniff, sip and leave your impressions in the comments below. We'll chat about 'em in future Leggy and Luscious installments and in the meantime – happy drinking!

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Filed under: Leggy and Luscious • Sip • Wine

soundoff (44 Responses)
  1. Leigh

    This is a very naive and simplistic article, and a bit misleading as well. As Fianna in these comments says, "Wine professionals use the term oaky all the time. Anyone who suggests otherwise is out of their mind – or just trying to pretend to know more than they do."

    And it's not just American and French oak. There are different types of French oak — Tronçais, Nevers, Limousin, Allier and more — plus there's also Yugoslavian oak. And then there's the amount of toast allowed in the curing of the barrel. Plus, there's the age of the barrel and whether it's been used to store spirits first, and what kind of spirits. There's also the size of the tank.

    Further, the flavor imparted by the oak is slightly different if the wine is fermented in oak as opposed to being just stored.

    Other woods are used as well. In California, wine was once stored in large Redwood tanks, which were not supposed to impart flavors to the wine, but they did in very subtle ways. I once tasted an experimental Merlot that Warren Winiarski at Stag's Leap Wine Cellars had aged in cedar.

    Articles about wine are great, but this author needs to do a little more homework.

    July 26, 2011 at 11:23 am |
    • vb

      Leigh if you know so much you should write your own smart wine blog. As stated this is the second posting this writer has given us after taking a course at the American Sommelier Association. She is not claiming to have worked as head sommelier at La Tour d'Argent in Paris; rather simply sharing with others her experience. Perhaps you should climb down from on top of your Magnum, or start your own blog.

      July 26, 2011 at 1:42 pm |
  2. les

    enjoying New Zealand SBs this summer – tasty

    July 26, 2011 at 8:53 am |
  3. Matthew

    As of late, I've been expanding my wine palette. I've found that you can't really appreciate something if you go in with a closed mind. I hope this isn't going to be like Merlot in the 80s and 90s, where it totally decimates a section of the industry. For those of you who claim to hate oak; give an oak fermented wine a try in the fall. For those of you who claim to hate steel; try a nice chilled glass of steel fermented wine on a hot summer night. You'll be doing yourself a favor by expanding you palette, and opening yourself up to some new experiences.

    July 25, 2011 at 11:25 pm |
    • Jimdub

      Maybe you mean "palate"? Unless, of course, you're painting with wine...

      July 26, 2011 at 7:10 pm |
  4. Tracey

    As a wine drinker who has recently begun to expand her horizons, I think you do a great job of explaining oak, the use, abuse and subtle (or not so subtle) influences it can have on wine. I was heading in the hating oak direction until I started to taste wines where the use was much more judicious and specific. The type of oak, the length of time, etc can all influence the outcome. Well used, I'm learning that oak can really round out a wine and soften the taste. Great article! Thanks.

    July 25, 2011 at 9:51 pm |
  5. Drogo, who bit the dust

    What a crock....

    July 25, 2011 at 8:14 pm |
  6. Fianna

    Wine professionals use the term oaky all the time. Anyone who suggests otherwise is out of their mind – or just trying to pretend to know more than they do.

    July 25, 2011 at 6:10 pm |
  7. AO

    I'm not sure I've tasted the diffrence or really knew how to but I love wine. It has to be the very dry stuff too. I'm not a sweets kind of gal. So the next time I do drink some I'll really have to pay attention.

    July 25, 2011 at 3:37 pm |
  8. BV

    I love "oak" I love the fact that I can take a sip of an "oaky" white and feel like I'm tasting age. You don't get that with steel. I thank you "leggy" for this excellent write. Never knew there was such detail involved. Keep writing...I"ll keep reading.

    July 25, 2011 at 2:44 pm |
  9. RedinAustin

    The real reason "oaky" has a bad reputation, is that there was so much demand for the Chardonnay coming out of California in the 1990's that people were willing to buy anything. A lot of bad vinyards used oak to mask the poor quality of the Chardonnay's they were producing to keep up with demand. So oak = bad in a lot of minds now. There are good oaky Chardonnay's. They are just hard to find beacuse of the derth of rot-gut.

    July 25, 2011 at 1:48 pm |
    • RedinAustin

      "because" not "beacuse"

      July 25, 2011 at 1:50 pm |
      • hannah1

        How about "Chardonnays" for plural, not "Chardonnay's" for possessive, genius!

        July 26, 2011 at 6:46 am |
      • hannah1

        and "dearth" , not "derth" OMG what people do to the King's English!

        July 26, 2011 at 6:48 am |
  10. The Witty One

    As long as I can sniff the cork I am good to go. Altough I guess it would actually be the bunghole...yucky.

    July 25, 2011 at 1:39 pm |
    • The Witty One


      July 25, 2011 at 1:40 pm |
  11. Jimdub

    I assume you mean wine "sensei" Andrew Bell. "Sensei" means teacher or master, "sensai" doesn't really mean anything...

    July 25, 2011 at 1:33 pm |
    • Chuck Norris

      It's Texan and Chuck Norris approved.

      July 25, 2011 at 1:37 pm |
  12. carinne

    who is judging anyone for their tastes in wines? shame on them! allow someone their happiness. If your idea of wine is in a box – more power to ya. You've found what you like – from the range of heavily oaked to stainless steel (or China's red wine + coke) – all that matters is that you enjoy it.

    July 25, 2011 at 12:22 pm |
  13. Mildred

    I can definitely tell the difference between oak and steel. I prefer oak most of the time.

    July 25, 2011 at 10:45 am |
    • Patrick

      Oak tastes like ass....Give me the clean taste of a citrusy white wine frmo a stainless steel barrell any day. Hold the oak, please.

      July 25, 2011 at 3:36 pm |
    • Patrick

      Oak tastes like ass....Give me the clean taste of a citrusy white wine from a stainless steel barrell any day. Hold the oak, please.

      July 25, 2011 at 3:37 pm |
    • AleeD@Patrick

      And you've tasted azz before, so you would know. How fortunate for you! :D

      July 25, 2011 at 3:54 pm |
      • sasqtch

        Now that is a great come back line.

        July 25, 2011 at 4:20 pm |
      • hawaiiduude

        it does come out of the bung hole...

        July 26, 2011 at 1:45 pm |
  14. Vanilla Gorilla

    The best thing about old oak wine barrels and casts is that they are used to age single malt whiskys !!

    July 25, 2011 at 9:14 am |
    • steve

      here here!!!

      July 25, 2011 at 10:05 am |
    • Chris

      +1. Absolutely love Whiskey, Bourbon and Scotch

      July 25, 2011 at 11:07 am |
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