Get Your Wood Out of My Wine!

Posted by The Wine Whore |

While traveling in France, one name came up repeatedly: Robert Parker. I haven't figured out if the French love him for bringing fame and fortune to their world of wine, or hate him for causing French wine to be crafted to fit his palate. One thing is for sure, Parker is the root cause behind too much wood in wine. By that, I mean that Parker's desire for new oak fueled the "overoaked" wine craze in Bordeaux as well as around the world.

Oddly enough, one of the criteria around the quality of a Chateau and the wine they produce revolves around the amount of new oak used during production. The most expensive and highly acclaimed wineries use none other than 100% new French Oak barrels to make their premier wine. These new barrels are capable of imparting mouthfuls of splinters and other somewhat overbearing woody characteristics into the wine. This leaves me quite confused...

If overoaked wine is considered undesirable by so many people, why do we still put so much wood into our wine?

Is this due solely to Parker's palate of influence? Are there many other people out there that actually LIKE wine that tastes more like it came from an oak tree than a grapevine?

Personally, I like a generous amount of oak... but there is still a breaking point for even my oak craving tastes. My rule of thumb: if my tongue starts bleeding from splinters, there is too much oak. In my opinion, there are just too many other beautiful characteristics to be found in a glass of wine to let them be overpowered by this single woody thorn. The next time you enjoy a glass of wine, I challenge you to consider and quantify the amount of oak present. Is it palatable or just plain overoaked?

Don't forget that no one else can tell you your tastes... not even Parker!


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Anonymous said...

I'm not one to think that wines are being crafted to liking of one person. On a personal note, I love a mouth filling tannin laden wine. But I don't want my tannin to taste like oak.

The Wine Whore said...

I agree... wine definitely needs some grip and a fair amount of oak, but nothing over the top!

I am always intrigued with the amount of external influence people have on the wine world. While I don't believe that wine is crafted to one single person's palate, I do acknowledge that collectively we have the power to influence (albeit even in a small way) the way wine tastes.


Jamie Irving said...

I don't want to go all conspiracy theory on you, but I sometimes wonder if wines are overoaked in order to hide something?

I too like my fair share of oak, but when it torpedoes the fruit out of the water, what's the point!

The Wine Whore said...

I LOVE conspiracy theories! I have to agree, if you need THAT much oak in your wine, what are you trying to cover up?

Hmmmm....anyone from the wine industry care to share their thoughts on using oak in wine?


Fabius said...

Hi, I'm from the wine industry - i'm a (very) small producer of quality wines from the Madrid region (Spain). Bear in mind that I might as well NOT be from the wine industry as I probably don't have much in common with the type of operators you're talking about in your post.
My first reaction re that conspiricy theory was to think "No way!" Oak barrels are expensive (�600 for French oak approx) just to cover up defect in 300 bottles of wine??? Also, it would have to be a pretty minor defect, and the oak would have to be new, and it would take months at least to effect.
Maybe big volume operators could do it, but I can't see a small producer specializing in quality wine doing it.

The Wine Whore said...

Thank you for stopping by and providing some insight from a winemaker's perspective. You bring up a few great points... oak is a quite expensive way of "covering up" flaws in wine. Also, to what degree would a flaw have to be in that you could actually cover it up with oak. While I am sure that oak can be used to mask some qualities in the wine that may be less than desirable, you input also begs the question: if oak is so expensive, why do some many wineries use it so heavily? Do they really think we like it THAT much?


salutwineco said...

Well, let's not forget that there's a big difference between those who drink wine for its artistic or culinary qualities, but much more abundant are those who drink wine as a beverage. There's nothing wrong with wanting a flame-broiled cheeseburger or a $15 restaurant burger as long as they are both sold to the persons wanting it.

And for sure a ton of Americans love loud motorcycles, cheap beer, Taco Bell for mexican cuisine and movies that go 'bang bang'. Oak goes bang bang.

The Wine Whore said...

Great point! Every lock has a key and hopefully every glass of wine has a palate. Hmm... come to think of it, I am sure there are some glasses of wine that are only fit for the sink or perhaps cooking.

Did other countries fall in love with oak in wine as much as us (Parker) did? Is overoaked wine as American as apple pie?


Evan Dawson said...

Randy - You're getting too insular in your thinking if you conclude "overoaked wine is considered undesirable by so many people." It's not. It's simply considered undesirable by so many wine writers whom you read.

The Wine Whore said...

You have a great point Evan... I'm disappointed that noone has come forth and stated that they actually LIKE a lot of oak in their wine... does such a person exist?


Fabius said...

Re Expensive oak. Maybe we have to differentiate between the mass market for wine and the quality market. I'm no expert in this aspect, but I'm pretty sure that the vast majority of the wine-drinking population neither knows nor cares about oakiness or anything else about the wine they buy. I suppose that oak chips and oak flavour additives are cheap. I'm also no expert taster and I don't think I'd be able to tell the difference in a blind tasing between wine aged in an oak barrel for months and a wine given the oak chip treatment, but perhaps a connaisseur would. It's similar to junk food from a franchise and gourmet food from a proper restaurant.

In any case, I think it would be against any small quality producer's principles to do such a thing. I mean it's the whole reason we make wine, ie to make a genuine, natural quality product, expressing as much as possible the variety, the terroir, etc. If it were for the money, we'd be in another business, I assure you! The right amount of oak enhances the quality of the wine; too much is a defect, not enough is missed potential. For the mass market, who cares? if it's profitable for the volume producers to market and sell oaky wine, then they'll do it. For them it's got nothing to do with quality, just the bottom line.

The Wine Whore said...

You bring up some excellent points. There is definitely a difference in buying patterns and tastes between the two markets. I guess the thing that threw me though a loop was the thought that expensive French wine used heavy oak and actually scored well with folks like Robert Parker. This left me questioning why heavy oak was seen as desirable by some folks and not others.


Mark said...

I think we are starting to finally get some push back against over-oaked wine. I do understand that Chardonnay with oak/butter flavors is popular, but with reds it doesn't make as much sense!

Fabius said...

I think a lot of people lost the plot with Robert Parker and his scores, to the extent of actually producing grapes and wine specially for his taste buds so he would give them a high score!!! But there's lots of money to be made or lost, hence the media-circus. All talk of quality, oakiness, etc, whatever, blah-blah-blah from these people is secondary - numero uno for them is to sell, sell, sell - and they'll talk the talk and say whatever they have to say. If RP had liked, say light, low-tannin, acidic wines, then the world would be flooded with those wines, instead of the big, oaky wines we have now!
Sorry if I sound cynical this morning! I'm not usually like this!

The Wine Whore said...

I would have to agree... I am fascinated by the effect that folks like Parker have on wine. I am also always turned off by those folks in the industry who are only concerned with $$$. Of course, I understand that these people are like anyone else, they produce/sell wine to make a living and feed their families but it's saddening to see this as their sole motivation.

Sometimes it's hard not to be cynical. I appreciate you sharing your opinions and feelings with me.


Gerry Dawes said...

Great to see you open up this topic. I loathe the taste of new oak and really think that pronounced oak in wines has screwed up more vino in the last 15 years than TCA and bad corks combined. An oak barrel should be a vehicle for aging wine not added wood flavors that obliterate the nuances of any grape variety or terroir the wine might have. It has become a wooden crutch for a multitude of people who do not know how to make great wine, so often they talk about the types of barrels they use instead of wine quality. Fortunately, there is a brighter day ahead. With the huge surplus of unsold wine and the current down-the-tubes economy, those outrageously expensive French barrels--not all of which were from French oak--are falling out of favor and new there is a new religion about oak emerging. That religion--just a talking point for selling wine--should have been there all along and would have been if most of these oaky monster producers had had any real taste for good wine in the first place.

Thanks for putting this out on your blog. The only thing I would quibble with is those comments from your readers who like a good dose of oak in their wines. If you like wood that much suck on a toothpick between sips!!!

Regards, Gerry Dawes

The Wine Whore said...

LOL! Actually, when I posted this, I figured I would get a lot of people saying they like oak and a lot of people saying that they don't. I was surprised to see that many people would agree with your taste in wine. The idea of whether or not oak covers up the taste seems to be a topic of debate which I don't think, given my limited knowledge and experience with the winemaking process, I could answer at this point.

In any case, I am glad that people know which types of wine they enjoy. The mere fact that people have an opinion one way or the other about oak in their wine is pretty cool. Like you stated, people's tastes will eventually drive what producers are bottling... a brighter day is ahead!

Thank you for contributing to the conversation, adding some insight, and most importantly, for enjoying wine!


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