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Paso Robles Wineries Oak Aging

Oak. It’s what your coffee table or bed frame might be made out of. You may have recently eaten a steak grilled to perfection over smoldering oak chips. The log you threw on the fire last evening to chase away the last chill of winter? Oak strikes again. There’s a reason we love oak (sturdy, plentiful, dependable burning). But, if you’re a wine novice (no judgment here), you may not know that oak is very often represented in your glass, too. The next time you “knock on wood,” why not say a little “thank you” to this infinitely useful natural material so plentiful in our wineries, our homes, and our hearts?

1. Why Oak?

The first thing you think about when I say, “winery,”–besides, perhaps—rows of sprawling vines—is probably a barrel room filled with rotund oak barrels. But why is wine aged in oak and not—say—pine or birch? The molecular structure of oak allows just the right amount of oxygen into the wine through its pores. Plus, the wood imparts a lovely array of flavor characteristics, depending on levels of toasting (the practice of heating up a barrel to literally “toast” the wood). How long a wine is left to age in oak—and the type of oak at hand—can change the color, flavor, tannin profile, and texture of the wine in question—which is why winemakers will shell out big bucks for premium barrels.

Toasty: Do you like your buttery chardonnays? Then you’ll certainly enjoy Harmony Cellar’s 2015 Chardonnay, lightly oaked (hence the golden color) and bursting with citrus, apple, and butterscotch yumminess. Tropical notes are balanced with a full-bodied, creamy flavor that finishes with notes of buttered toast.

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2. Isn’t Oak all the same?

Well, in a word, no. Just as fruits or veggies grown around the world will vary by sub-species, flavor, and appearance, so is oak vastly different, depending on where it is grown (ever see a purple Japanese yam?). The three main types of oak used in wine are as follows: American (species: Quercus alba), a neutral flavored choice grown throughout the US and commonly found in Missouri; Hungarian Oak (species Quercus robur), which is grown in Eastern Europe and—although remarkably close to French oak—boasts a cheaper prize tag; and—the Queen of all oaks—French oak (species: Quercus petraea), which has a finer grain, imparts more flavor, and features the highest price tag of all. Another interesting note about French oak? The forests used for barrel oak are selected for their fine-grained consistent wood. Most notably, well-made barrels from Alliers, Vosges, and Tronçais command upwards of $4,000 per barrel!

French Connection: Here’s a great example of French oak working its magic: Aged 18 months in fine French oak barrels, Seven Oxen Estate Wines’ 2013 Mourvedre shows the perfect balance of toastiness and fruit flavor. Notes of black pepper, licorice, leather, and candied fruits are balanced out with a touch of Grenache, giving this complex wine a subtle, round fruitiness.

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3. What does Oak Taste Like?

So why all the hoopla and dollar signs when it comes to sourcing and toasting good oak? This all comes down to one word: flavor. Everyone wants to showcase the best flavor—and often, winemakers work to dress up a grape’s natural deliciousness with varying degrees of oak (it is a balancing act). Every time you sip a Cabernet Sauvignon with undertones of caramel or vanilla—that’s oak. Every time you enjoy a Chardonnay with a whiff of buttered crème brûlée toastiness, that’s (yes, you guessed it) oak. Although American Oak barrels are commonly crafted for the spirits industry (bourbon, especially), more and more winemakers are using American oak barrels to impart vanilla, coconut, and even dill flavors. Hungarian oak helps boost the flavor of full-bodied wines, such as petite verdot and malbec, with its distinct heftiness. French oak is prized by chardonnay makers because the wine notoriously soaks up the oakiness of the barrel easily. Ever wonder how that “oaked chardonnay” trend became so popular around the world? Fun fact: Plenty of winemakers will use all three oaks at different parts of the aging process to produce a multifaceted wine that showcases the winery’s unique point of view.

Jada Vineyards Buy the Wine ButtonNeutral Palate: Jada Winery’s 2011 adaj Cabernet Sauvignon was barrel aged in 100 percent neutral French oak for 18 months. Why neutral? The winemaker did not want to overpower the wine’s gentle tannin structure or fresh minerality. Black fruit, orange peel, cocoa, rosemary, potpourri, and earth round out a palate of dark cherry, plum, and chocolate-covered strawberries.

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4. Oak in Unexpected Places

Not all oaking happens in oak barrels. Did you know that oak can be introduced in the form of a barrel during the fermentation or aging periods, or as free-floating chips or staves added to wine fermented in a vessel like stainless steel? Some barrels even feature a stainless steel outer shell with oak boards inserted into the wine. We’re not knocking other fermentation and aging vessels like clay, concrete, or steel (they all have their place and their value), but it’s a good idea to know just what your wine was aged with and for how long. Perhaps you will find you prefer completely unoaked, crisp whites, a neutral or medium oak aging on your Rhone blends, or a heavy oaking in your merlot or cab. There is no wrong answer. In fact, the only wrong thing to do is not to ask. Wander into the woods, friends! Get lost, live a little, and learn a lot.

To Oak or not to Oak?: Tudor Wines is known for its fabulous pinot noirs, many of which are aged in French oak for upwards of 10 months. However, even this oak loving winery can see the merits of a differing aging process, depending on the varietal at hand. For example, the winery’s 2014 Dry Nacina SLH Riesling is aged in stainless steel to keep a clean, crisp, fresh flavor profile. Remember: oak doesn’t always equal superior. Sometimes it’s completely unnecessary!

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5. Oak and our Earth

Although many wineries use and re-use oak barrels, their flavor does wear off over time (hence why “new” barrels are often prized). Wineries are known to borrow, trade, re-sell and repurpose their barrels regularly, but this doesn’t tackle the issue of deforestation around the world. As more and more wineries become greener and more eco-conscious, new and inventive ideas have sprung up to ensure that wines remain flavorful as the world remains healthy.

Oso Libre buy the wine buttonFuture of oak?: Oso Libre Winery has found a keen solution to this problem: using steel barrels fitted with oak planks inserted inside. Known for powerful, lush red blends, the winery will be releasing their first vintages crafted in this method soon. Stop by the tasting room and see what’s in store for the future of oak! Hint: It’s just as delicious.

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This blog was written by Hayley Thomas Cain, food and wine writer for SLO New Times and You can reach her at [email protected] or follow her on instagram @flavorslo.

photo credit: Ulf Bodin Artur de Barros e Sousa 1999 via photopin (license)

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