Thirty-odd years ago, during a long interview with America’s greatest winemaker, Andre Tchelistcheff at Beaulieu Vineyard, I asked the maestro about his use of oak in aging cabernet sauvignon.
In his strong Russian accent, Andre went into a detailed explanation of the use of oak barrels and concluded by saying, in effect, once the winemaker smells the oak, “you have lost the wine.”
That sentiment was understood by many winemakers in the 1970s and earlier. The late John Parducci of Mendocino County was so adamantly opposed to the smell and taste of oak in his red wines that in 1973 he put out a cabernet with a red triangle in the right-hand corner of the front label that said, “Not aged in oak.”
By the 1980s, however, the flavor of oak was seen as essential to a fine red wine and also defined great chardonnay.
Actually, it wasn’t the oak aromas as much as the char inside the barrel that was lending wines their added aromatics and tastes.
The use of barrels goes back hundreds of years and they weren’t employed for the flavors they imparted, but for the maturity that wine gets in older, neutral barrels.
Red wines tend to be raw and unappealing when very young. Aging them in oak (or walnut, acacia or chestnut) can create a more mature beverage with complexities from the interaction of the volatiles in the wine and in the barrels. Aging also helps deal with rough tannins.
Aging wine in wood only for maturity began to change in the late 1970s when some wine reviewers started giving high scores to wines that smelled more of bacon, chocolate, coffee and vanilla than they did of wine grapes.
Such aromas and flavors came about partially as a result of the way barrels had traditionally been made. Staves cut from oak to be formed into barrels had to be bent before metal hoops could be used to hold them in place. To bend the wood, a small fire would be started in a cooper’s shop, around which staves could be positioned so the heat would make them more pliable.
The interior of each barrel thus was “toasted,” much the way the smoke from burning wood imparts a smoky aroma to bacon, or the way roasting of cacao or coffee beans adds to the flavors of chocolate and coffee.
As oak flavors became a popular new characteristic for many wines, Tchelistcheff’s old message about noticeable oak being a sign of a poorly made wine was abandoned.
Before long, numerous shortcuts were developed to infuse oak flavoring into wines, such as chips, toasted staves and granulated oak powder. Most have serious drawbacks but are still used in some cheaper wines.
French oak barrels, generally perceived to impart the most classic flavors, are made from a species called Quercus Robur, which differs from the American Quercus Alba, which imparts slightly different aromatics.
The cost of French oak is usually much higher than that of American oak, and there are literally dozens of variations from one barrel maker to another, and from one forest in France to another.
In the past few years, some wineries are experimenting by using older barrels and emulating the 1970s with their wines.