The word oak doesn't usually trigger instant enthusiasm. Some people have a negative connotation with the word, particularly when it comes to wine. However, experts know oak can often make or break a wine's flavor, price and even has scientists trying to develop ways to copy its importance.
My wife, Heidi, and I recently did a tasting with Mariana Onofri, an extremely knowledgeable sommelier at The Vines of Mendoza in Argentina. She gave us the following five helpful tips about oak.
1. Oak often determines cost of wine.
Oak barrels used for aging wine come from special areas in the United States or France. The cost of one barrel generally ranges between $600 and $1,500 and can be used up to four times.
Higher-end wines may only use barrels once. The cost of the barrel can account for up to half of the total production cost, which results in a higher-priced wine for the consumer.
Wines aged in oak are typically over $30, and wines under $10 were most likely not aged in oak.
2. Don't be fooled by fast food wine scientists.
You may have heard about scientists involvement in making fast food taste and smell better by utilizing an endless amount of additives and preservatives. We were surprised to hear that this also happens with wine!
Some wineries will use oak flavoring powder or a piece of oak (frequently referred to as an oak stave) in a steel barrel to make the wine taste like it was aged in an oak barrel. This limits the wine's taste and aging potential. Just like that late-night drive through isn't the same as a backyard grill!
It's also important to point out that oak doesn't only affect flavor. A good use of oak can help a wine's structure, aging process, aromas, flavors and overall quality.
3. Oak isn't for every wine.
Oak barrels require wines that have quality grapes and structure. Sometimes people believe that oak can destroy the flavor of the wine, but that is only possible if the grapes or structure are weak or a winemaker uses the wrong kind of oak. A perfect use of oak doesn't overpower the grape's character. It should provide balance.
4. Drink white wines not aged in oak quickly.
With the exception of Chardonnay, oak is rarely used when making white wines. For this reason, most white wines should be drunk while they are still young -- within one or two years -- because a majority aren't aged in oak.
5. Keep an eye on aging potential.
One of the best ways to check if oak barrels were used in aging a wine is to simply check the label. A lot of wineries will mention oak aging on the bottle. If a red wine was in a barrel for an average of 12 to 18 months, then it will have a much better aging potential.
Be careful if you see that a red wine hasn't been aged in oak and is around 7 years old. You should probably avoid the sale price, because it likely will have oxidized and lost its prime time period for drinking.