The Obsession with New Oak

I have been wondering about the obsession with new oak. Now I don’t mean that in a pejorative way, and I don’t want to get into the details of how and why use of new oak has somewhat declined recent years. I’m not looking at this so much from the winemaker’s point of view as from the taster’s. Why is it that one of the first questions you ask when assessing (at least certain types) of wine is: how much new oak does it have? I have found myself questioning winemakers all over France about this during visits this year. I suppose it’s a sort of quick metric for getting a handle on style.

But the responses have left me feeling that the question is simplistic to the point at which answers can be misleading. The reason for my confusion is that all too often I have tasted a significant amount of oak on wines where in fact there is little use of new oak. My notes on one Chablis producer, who always used to use quite a lot of new oak but now uses very little, make comments to the effect that the oak may have been cut back but I can still see enough that I want to wait a few years for it to integrate. So the stats on usage of new oak (when available) don’t tell me very much.

Why do producers use new oak? This is not such a silly question as it sounds. Often enough it’s not because they want the taste of oak in the wine. “We use just enough new oak for each vineyard but I don’t want to taste it in the wine,” says Dominique Lafon in Meursault. “If a wine comes from new oak without the (sense of) oak, it’s a sign of purity of terroir,” says Mounir Saouma at Lucien Lemoine in Beaune. “(Oak flavor) is the taste I hate most.” There’s a widespread belief that barriques of new oak results in more exposure to oxygen than old oak: “It’s not the new wood that’s interesting for me, it’s the oxygenation,” says Olivier Bernstein, one of the new micro-negociants in Beaune. I am a bit uncertain about this: I thought oxygen exposure comes more via the bung than between the staves.

Anyway new oak can usually be sensed in the wine, but the impression of oak can also come from use of first or second year barrels. I wonder whether a formula such as

oak = (100% x new oak)+ (50% x one-year oak)+ (25% x two-year oak)

would give a better sense of the impression of a young wine? I’m afraid, however, that winemakers might not have the patience to provide the detailed stats needed to work this out. The moral is not exactly beware of new oak but beware of believing that the proportion of new oak will directly predict the style of the wine.

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