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.
The newly released 2013 BV Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon ($140), a wine whose style was created by Tchelistcheff, reflects more restraint in the use of oak than many other Napa Valley producers. It has a classic varietal aroma and excellent aging potential.
One winemaker with courage developed a cabernet franc made in the style of the Loire Valley that is rather challenging but remarkably interesting.
Fox Run Winery in New York is just releasing a small-production, but stellar cab franc that was not aged in barrels at all, a la Parducci.
The 2016 Fox Run Unoaked Cabernet Franc “Ikehu” (Hawaiian for “energy”) is amazingly stylish with perfect varietal character and delightfully high acidity. It is paler in color than most such wines but delivers wonderful, precise flavors.
“The idea for that wine came from my assistant, Lindsey Van Keuren,” said Peter Bell. He said Fox Run “didn’t have enough barrels for all the franc, so she suggested we put some in stainless steel tanks.”
By January, “she suggested that the wine had turned out sensationally, so we all agreed, ‘Let’s go with this,’” he said. Only 120 cases were made.
“I think it’s a mortal sin to throw new oak at a wine like that,” said Bell.
Wine of the Week: 2016 Scheid Pinot Noir Rosé, Scheid Vineyards, Monterey County ($19): This completely dry pink wine has aromas of strawberry, watermelon and a subtle spiced note. It is dry enough to work with almost any food. Superb.
Sonoma County resident Dan Berger publishes “Vintage Experiences,” a weekly wine newsletter. Write to him at email@example.com. He is also co-host of California Wine Country with Steve Jaxon on KSRO Radio, 1350 am.