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Using oak in its various forms, either ageing wine in oak barrels or adding oak chips or oak staves to vats of wine, has been around for hundreds of years. Before concrete vats, or stainless steel, wine was fermented and stored in oak. Of course if you go back even further it was made and transported in Clay terracotta amphora- large clay jars. This is back in fashion at the moment. One of the most popular comments at the Bench wine bar is “I don’t like oaky wines”. I think everyone is harking back to the bad old days when wines had a lot of added oaky flavour. This was largely done by suspending toasted oak chips in the wine vats in a tea bag like way. It gave wines a cheap fix of oak and a slightly tropical, banana sweetish flavour, rather sickly. There was a huge fashion for these cheap oaky, bright yellow, chardonnays from Australia. Thankfully these days are long gone and the Chardonnays coming out of Australia now, from the boutique to the mass produced, are of much better quality.

The positive use of oak is to add structure to a wine, add spicy notes, add depth of flavour, and allow the wine to gently be exposed to oxygen. Barrels breathe and this softens and rounds out a wine. A bad dirty barrel will give a wine a caskey, old wood aroma. An expensive new French oak barrel will give a creaminess, butteriness and a touch of sweetness to a white wine, complementing the fruit and acidity it already has. Barrels don’t come cheap, at least £600 for a new French barrique that holds 225 litres!

So it’s not a cheap option and not something a wine maker does lightly. Used barrels have less marked effect but help to soften a wine. Some wines are actually fermented in barrel. This gives a slightly different effect as the yeasts and sediment from fermentation coat the inside of the barrel and we don’t get the same effect as oak ageing an already made wine in barrel.

The lovely Cedar and cigar box aromas of a good Bordeaux Claret are oak. The vanilla and strawberry aromas on an aged Rioja is oak. Slightly spicy aromas of cinnamon and clove in reds are also oak, as are the buttery rich silky textures of good white Burgundies and quality Australian Chardonnay.

So please reconsider the use of oak in wine making, it really shouldn’t stand out, but enhance the wine.

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