Why oak? At first glance it would seem unlikely that the wood from a tree and the fruit of the vine would have such a longstanding relationship. While both oak barrels and wine are ultimately made from plants, they are certainly cultivated, harvested, developed and utilized very differently. Yet without oak, the wide world of wine would be very, very different.
At least as far back as Roman times, wood barrels made of oak began to enter the wine world — initially just for transport, but then also for wine production. Oak is strong and durable yet relatively pliable, and the shape of the barrel makes it easy to roll from one place to another. Barrels were also significantly easier to handle, and less breakable than clay amphorae.
It also became evident that certain goods, like wine, can actually benefit from being stored in oak barrels. Over time, oak proved itself the best wood for fashioning into barrels to age wine and distilled spirits. Oak has remained an indispensable part of winemaking ever since.
Oak can transform wine, adding depth, flavors and complexity. Some of the more familiar additive notes that oak can impart include vanilla flavors, sweet and toasty aromas, tannins, notes of tea and tobacco, and an overall structural complexity.
The manufacturing process of making barrels — such as the inside toasting or firing of the barrels — typically varies depending on the species of oak and the desired effect it is to have upon the wine, for each method and variable aspect of manufacture can impart something different to the maturing wine.
Because barrels are made by hand, they are invariably expensive. So it is not uncommon for winemakers producing “volume” or cheap wines to use alternative methods to impart some of that oak aspect to their wines. For example, some wines are “oaked” by adding wood chips to the wine that is resting in nonreactive stainless steel or concrete containers.
Even these cheating methods, however, require some judgment. Indeed, deciding how to proceed and just how much and what sort of oak influence to impart, depends entirely upon a winemaker’s skill and experience.
Not all wines benefit from oak, especially the more delicate grape varietals and many white wines whose flavors would be adversely affected by the wood. The injudicious use of oak with Chardonnay can result in many bottles tasting like pencils rather than wine. As a consequence, a number of winemakers are releasing more “unoaked” Chardonnay that expresses more clearly the underlying nature of the varietal.
A nice example is the Abarbanel, Batch 30, Unoaked Chardonnay, Pas d’Oc, 2015 ($15; mevushal). It’s an enjoyable, straightforward, Chardonnay sourced from the Les Chemins de Favarelle single vineyard in the Aude River Valley of the Languedoc, with clean and inviting notes of citrus and pear, some lovely spice, nice balancing acidity and an agreeably creamy mouth feel.
For a contrast, consider the oak-embracing Israeli Domain du Castel, “C” Blanc du Castel, Judean Hills, 2014 ($50). It’s a big, rich, creamy, oaky Chardonnay made in the style of Burgundy — fermented in French oak barrels and aged sur lie (with the dead yeast particles in the barrel) for nearly 12 months with frequent batonnage (stirring). This is bright and balanced with a buttery aroma. It has rich flavors of apricots, peach, apples and lemon along with well-integrated, toasty oak and a notable minerality that comes together seamlessly and flows smoothly into the lingering and appealing finish. L’chaim! n