In Defense Of Oak (And Thoughts On Why Overoaked Wines Get High Scores)

Vinted on October 23, 2012 binned in commentary

A couple of weeks ago, I got a call from the folks who create content for Publix Grape Magazine, a free newsletter with wine tips and recommendations from the grocery chain’s extensive list of available wines.

For those who don’t know Publix, they kind of rule the roost in terms of the grocer action in the Southeastern U.S., employing over 150,000 people across more than 1,000 stores, and registering sales in excess of $25 billion (yes, with a B) annually.

The creative side of Publix Grape wanted to know if I’d be interested in writing an overview of oak aging for the Spring edition of the magazine, including its pluses, minuses and the science behind it.

“Absolutely,” I told them, and not just because I thought it would be entertainingly ironic for me to be published in both and Publix grape, two outlets that have got to serve almost opposite ends of the Liberal/Conservative constituency. “In fact, this is spookily serendipitous because I’d just sat down at my computer to draft up a blog article I wanted to call ‘In Defense Of Oak’!”

Combine that eerie coincidence with the fact that I hadn’t contributed to Publix Grape in what seemed like forever, and I couldn’t pass it up. And as I penned that Publix piece, I had a particularly personal realization reinforced (and no, it’s not that I love consonance). Namely, despite the fact that my subjectively favorite wines in all of the world (Mosel Rieslings) are un-oaked, I rather enjoy oak in a lot wines.

Okay, maybe that was more of a confession than a realization, given the gestalt of the modern wine media and geekier wine circles.

But it doesn’t change the fact that the oak-perception pendulum when it comes to wine might have swung just a bit too far lately…

I don’t want to rob from myself and restate anything from the upcoming Publix piece here, but the bottom line is that I do not hate oak; I hate the overuse of oak. While I marvel intellectually at reds like the 2010 Bodega Tacuil RD that don’t see even one gram of oak, chip, or stave, I can certainly find guilty pleasure in Franciscan’s Cuvee Sauvage Chardonnay given the right situation and food pairing action. Sometimes, you can push the oak to the upper limits, but have enough fruit and acidity to more-or-less balance everything out despite it all. Those are usually the wines about which I fond myself saying things like, “damn, doesn’t seem like it was aged for that many months in new barrels…”

The right amount of oak contact not only rounds out a wine and contributes to its aging potential exudes a sense of sophistication, lifts a wines aromatics, and adds a sense of the exotic in the touches of sweet spices. It’s like sprinkling just the right amount of baking spices onto the apple pie – too little and it doesn’t do much, too much and it dominates and therefore belittles the overall experience.

Now, there’s a big caveat I need to add here: we still see wines with way too much oak getting way too many points and way too many favorable reviews in the modern media, despite what I’d call a clear trend away from oak in the minds of sommeliers, wine geeks, a lot of wine media/critics and some of the general wine buying public.

In the case of red wines particularly, I’ve noticed that some (okay, many) wines that I would consider way over the threshold of good taste and judgment when it comes to oak use have received much higher praise from critics than I would’ve bestowed myself. Now… why is that?

I have a theory. And I suspect I will get flamed for it, especially since I don’t want to name names in the people or the wines. Now, before you print people get your wine-reviewing panties all in a twist, please note that I’ve got both on- and off-line critics in mind here, okay? Also, if you’re uptight about me not naming names, I can respect that view, but only so long as it takes you to contact any winemaker anywhere and ask them if over-oaked wines get higher scores than they deserve, at which point they will tell you Yes, give you five examples in confidence, and then you can go shove it. Personally, I’ve told at least 25 winemakers on different continents what I’m about to tell you and not one of them disagreed with it, so the anecdotal evidence is strong with the Force.

Anyway, I suspect that many of those critics taste what I would consider a sh*tload of wines at a single sitting. My strong suspicion is that those critics only get to spend a few minutes with each one, give it a rating and a tasting note, and then move on, often without ever coming back to the previous wines. If they did get back to those wines, they’d notice that given twenty minutes or so in the glass, those over-oaked reds will start to smell like bad maple syrup; instead of getting better in the glass as they develop, those wines get worse. But those critics don’t ever smell that development, because they’ve already moved on, gearing up for the next flight of wines to review in that tasting session.

That’s my guess – I’ve yet to confirm it with any hard evidence. And I might just have my head entirely up my own ass about all of this. But if I’m close to the mark on my guess, then I’d consider the situation a real shame, because reviewing a wine too perfunctorily is doing a big disservice to the people who show up to read what you have to say.

Oh, and one more caveat: while it’s true that some great, great red wines also go through a maple-syrup-oak phase in the glass (Tim Mondavi’s excellent Continuum, for example, does this in its youth), they do it far more quickly, demonstrate far more complexity, and the syrup notes when they do show up are far more pleasing than they are cloying.

Another possibility is that those critics are giving the wines the benefit of the doubt, that they will come out of a temporary maple phase like the better, more complex, tighter-in-their-youth oaked reds (personally, I’ve yet to encounter an over-oaked wine that does that). Yet another is that those critics just really, really like oak. And finally, they might actually think that type of maple syrup action is pleasurable, in which case I’d encourage them to visit the Northeast more, so they can get their hands on maple syrup that is actually good.

How about you? Are you down on oak in your wines, or down with oak in your wines?






  • Dusty

    I'm very down with Oak in my wines but I don't disagree with your opinions. I've had over-oaked wines that could have been so much better if they had not been over-oaked. I've had a few homemade wines that went further and were over-oaked to the point that you could not drink them. But that is a mistake that you only make once. I actually have a cab and a dry stout both sitting on french oak cubes right now for the same amount of time to see what similarities they will have because of it. I'm very excited!

    • 1WineDude

      Dusty – I would love to hear how that experiment turns out!

  • Steve Heimoff

    If the oak is balanced it adds richness and toast. If it's unbalanced, it's unbalanced. Some big wines, red and white, can easily handle 100% new oak. Most can't. I can tell from the smell. If buttered toast, caramel, butterscotch, vanilla and stuff like that dominate, then the wine is too oaky. The biggest mistake most winemakers make is to plaster oak (or oak-like substances) on simple wine in the hope that consumers will confuse it with the underlying wine. Finally, some people simply are more sensitive to oak than others. Perhaps you're one of them. Reasonable people can disagree.

    • 1WineDude

      Thanks, Steve. I actually think I might be *less* sensitive to oak than many other people that I know. At least, that’s the conclusion I’d draw from my experience in enjoying wines that others I know thought were too oaky. It’s a tricky balance for sure, but certainly I’m sure we’ve both seen instances where wines that might otherwise would have been fresh and vibrant got clobbered by too much oak. And let’s not forge that oak likely gets used in some cases as a cover for flaws, another explanation for why a winemaker might go there. Anyway, here’s to balance!

      • Erik V North Florida

        Balance is the key to this all. I just recently had a Mtn vineyard chard with nearly 18 to 20 months of french oak on it. Now, I could tell the wine was rich and had seen some oak, but the fruit and acid that was still highly present hid that fact very well and it was an 09 and drinking superbly. If asked, I would hae said 8 to 10 mo max and would hae thought that to be a lot of oak. This is a classic example of doing what the wine will allow and doing it well. thanks for the good article.

        • 1WineDude

          Thanks, Erik. I've had similar experiences with excellent wines that had a long time in oak, but didn't taste like it or smell like it at all. They make you do a double take. And sometimes they give the best aspects of oak – the spiciness – without being at all heavy handed.

  • masi3v

    I think you touched on my problem with 'over oaked' wines: those that I find 'over oaked' are usually those that have been blasted with wood to hide flaws in the wine. If the wine is well made but has a bit too much oak, I think that is more a question of taste. If the same wine has, say, 50% new oak or 40% new oak, one might taste better to you, while the other might taste better to me. I guess what I am saying is that all other things being equal, determining whether the amount of oak that a wine sees is 'good' or 'bad' comes down to individual taste in my opinion.

    • 1WineDude

      Masi3v – For sure. But I think we could get a lot of (maybe most?) people to agree that the bad-maple-syrup syndrome is taking things too far…

  • gabe

    My relationship with oak is similar to your theory of cinnamon on an apple pie. Without it, the pie can be bland. But when you add too much, you ruin a delicious apple pie. As always with wine, balance is the key.

    One interesting aside…when we were making our reserve wine, we ended up fighting the philosophical question of what makes a wine a "reserve". While the easy answer would be to make the best wine you can, we had about three or four blends that we really liked, and they were all distinctly different. Ultimately, we decided that the wines with stronger oak character and sturdier tannins showed the personality of a "reserve" more then a wine with floral aromatics and fruity character. I'm still not sure how I feel about that….I imagine it is something I will struggle with for years to come…but would love to hear your opinion on the perception of oak relative to the concept of "reserve" wines.

    • 1WineDude

      Hey Gabe – fascinating topic there taking us even deeper into the rabbit hole! :) I have nothing against using the term Reserve for wines with more prominent oak profiles, I just wish that the term had some kind of standard meaning, even if one that's only a voluntary adoption. Right now there's probably a bit too much marketing gimmickry behind the term. So it's really only useful I think to consumers who know the winery and it's wines pretty well already.

  • Rusty Gaffney MD

    I agree with Jason Lett of The Eyrie Vineyards in Oregon when he says markedly noticeable oak in wine is a flaw. It always amazes me how much good Pinot Noir is ruined (flawed) by too much oak. There is a mini-trend among Pinot Noir winemakers to vinify Pinot Noir in neutral oak barrels and these so-called "unplugged" wines can be very charming. I personally like a little oak in my Pinot Noir just like I prefer a little cream in my coffee.

    • 1WineDude

      Rusty – amen to that. Ever catch my recap of the Napa Valley Pinot retrospective tasting from a couple of years ago? Talk about smoke bombs…

  • Erik V North Florida

    I'm down with the use of oak, when the wine allows for it and in the right amounts. I couldn't agree more with your overall article and assesment. Ratings and reviews are always, or should be, taken with a grain of salt. It really comes down to that particular reviews own likes and dis-likes when it comes to wine….it is very hard to be impartial. Human nature will almost always make an individual make a decision on a bottom-line basis of "it sucks or doesn't suck" based on what they ultimately prefer to drink when not doing blind reviews.

  • cooper

    I would guess that you might feel that all Mosel Rieslings are not the same, that some are superior, finer examples. The same holds true for "oak", which is as wide a net as one can cast. There are commodity coopers and artisan coopers, and plenty in between. In my mind, the best coopers will never provide a barrel which is "oaky". It will invisibly support the wine, lifting and filling in gaps, tying a wine's elements together in a way which is subtle, fine, and nearly impossible to attribute to the barrel. We all know what we consider to be faults in wine; in barrels I would consider those to be smoke (poor toasting), astringent tannins (poor seasoning), and planky "oakiness" (poor selection) – in short, anything coarse and obvious which simplifies and dominates a wine.

    • 1WineDude

      cooper – Well-stated. In fact, I've had conversations recently about some wines improving that traditionally have used American oak, which a lot of folks are now attributing to a rise in quality of that oak from the better American cooperages.

  • Andy

    Oak is like salt in food. Too much — food tastes salty; too litttle, food tastes bland. Its the great winemaker / chef that know how much to add in what situations

    • 1WineDude

      Thanks, Andy – akin to the spice example from gabe.

  • Todd - VT Wine Media

    My own theory is that proper use of oak reaches back into or prehistoric DNA, and can emulate the tannin flavors that can be conveyed through the maceration of extremely ripe seeds in the fermentation process. We've had unoaked Leon Millot on several occasions that folks thought had been favorably barreled.
    Barrel selection and wine exposure periods are their own arts, and ones that not all producers approach deftly.
    I am definitely in the oak sensitive camp, and feel that over-oaking is a balance flaw, yet also understand how a long day of tasting, with its associate tannin buildup, mean that only the most robust, and least subtle wines stand out.
    I don't get the bad maple syrup though…maybe no good frame of reference. I don't believe we have such a thing in Vermont.

    • 1WineDude

      Todd – you almost certainly do not have bad maple syrup in VT!!! :)

  • Carl Helrich

    Most winemakers looking to make good wines know that oak is a spice, not a condiment. But since there are a lot of ketchup lovers out there, there must be a lot of oak lovers. (And, I have to admit, one of my favorite smells in the whole wide world is filling a new French barrel with a good, freshly pressed red. Wouldn't want to drink it, but would love to make a perfume out out it.)

    Good call on noticing how short a time critics spend with any given oak monster. I'd add that after tasting 25 wines or so, the wines that you notice are the ones that go up to 11 for some reason. And most of us–when we sit up and notice something–think that that must be good, when it may just be different or louder than anything else around. (This is my pet theory why French wines have a bad track record in blind tastings with new world wines……)

    • 1WineDude

      Hey Carl – and it probably also depends on the types of wines being tasted. I mean, after a day of Cabs, even a very modest beer is like a slice of heaven. :)

  • MTGA Wines

    Steve above had the best point I think, unbalanced is just unbalanced. In my experience I don't mind oak as long it is part of the full package not the defining characteristic. But hey, maybe that is just the winemaker's style. There are definitely those who love a punch from oak aging. I'd completely agree with you on critic's analysis and extend it to things like big extraction and jammy fruit on Napa Cabs. I would totally believe that they take their few sips and move on without revisiting wines that take time to evolve, for better or worse, in the glass. But you also have to figure that with so many wines to taste would they really have the time in the day to go back and revisit everything without having shot taste buds by the end of it?

    In my opinion, whether you are using no oak, some new oak, 100% new or even 200% new oak it just needs to be in balance. Barrels are the winemaker's spice rack and they can either just give the wine a little dash or pinch or throw and handful in to really give a wine some bite or kick. Same can be said for alcohol content. I've had Chards with near 100% new oak, no ML just lees stirring, and 15.5% alcohol that were in balance, you would have never guessed those numbers or that production style because it was a well made wine.

    The biggest 'caveat' for me would be that everyone has their own tastes and if someone likes those big over-oaked wines more power to them, I'll save them just for those folks.

    • 1WineDude

      MTGA – thanks, all good points, but in terms of critics only giving a passing glance to wines, as it were, simply because of volume, how would you feel if yours were one of those? I know I wouldn't dig that if it were my wine, I'd want some time spent with it.

      • MTGA Wines

        That is very true and I agree with your point. If I had a wine that was going to be reviewed I would be willing to tight tooth and nail to make sure it got a fair shot, which is a main reason I wouldn't submit a wine for ratings/reviews (that and what I do is a a few dozen cases at this point).

        I am definitely more of a pessimist when it comes to the large wine rating systems. I'd love to believe that everyone gets their fair shot but I find it unrealistic because of what may or may not be tasted before or after the wine that you submitted. I'd like to believe that they are able to remain neutral even if they've tasting a dozen or more wines prior to mine, but I can't (like I said, kind of a pessimist). That said everyone needs a starting point when getting into wine, it isn't a easy thing to get into. If your palate aligns with that publication great, if not then at least you know what you might not like. There is also no doubt that ratings sell a bunch of wine for larger producers and it is hard to argue with padding the bottom line. I see the value in them but I think you have to fit the trend or taste buds of that particular rating system to play ball or compete.

        Sorry for sidetracking the convo a bit from Oak to ratings and whatnot =)

        • 1WineDude

          MTGA – “you have to fit the trend or taste buds of that particular rating system to play ball” EXACTLY! Cheers.

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