R James Mullen takes a look at a knotty problem faced by many vintners in the wine-ageing process
Local wine buff R James Mullen asks “to oak or not to oak?” Given the price of a genuine French oak barrel, it is a question many winemakers will be asking themselves this harvest season
To oak or not to oak…” that is the question on the minds of many northern hemisphere winemakers at this time of year as they crush the 2018 harvests. Probably not as profound as Shakespeare’s Hamlet when pondering “To be or not to be…” but nonetheless significant in the economics of winemaking when considering the approximately 50,000 baht price of a 200-litre premium French oak barrel.
Walnut, redwood, chestnut and pine are among other tree species used to make barrels, which for many hundreds of years were the primary containers for storing and shipping wines, olive oil and dry goods. For centuries wine made in Greece was stored in barrels made from native pine, which imparted a heavy resin flavour—hence the name retsina— and also acted as a preservative for traditional Greek wines.
In California, giant redwood trees growing in close proximity to Napa Valley’s wine region became the wood of choice for fermentation tanks and ageing barrels. Quite neutral in terms of flavour compounds, the wood was nearly impervious to any form of rot, making it appealing not only for barrels but also for building construction. Several wineries— including famed Beaulieu—have kept large redwood fermentation vats, although mostly for historic value.
Oak in its various subspecies has become the wood of choice of winemakers around the world for ageing their wines to perfection. Tannins and pigments in oak tend to moderate harsh components of just-fermented wine, resulting in smoother, more integrated flavours. Modern science allows analysis of specific compounds in each type of oak and its likely effect on acids and sugars in a wine.
Winemakers then determine their oak preference and the length of time their wine should remain in the barrel. Considering the aforementioned cost of a French oak barrel from the forests of say Limousin or Nevers where the tree itself takes 75 to 100 years to reach the maturity required for fine barrels, it’s small wonder that a bottle of Chateau MoutonRothschild starts at around US$700 exwinery—heaven knows how much in Thailand.
Fortunately for more modestly positioned wine lovers creative winemakers can achieve at least some oak benefits for far less money by using oak chips or oak staves during fermentation and ageing rather than oak barrels. Be aware that 90+ per cent of the red wine you buy now uses at least some of these more economical finishing techniques. A fun comparison of the effects of oak on wine is to buy a chardonnay labelled un-wooded or unoaked and a bottle of regular chardonnay or a white burgundy. Oak comes at a price but the finish is so nice—touch wood!
TRADITIONAL FLAVOURS Expensive they may be but barrels made from various types of wood—particularly oak— remain the winemaker’s choice for ageing vintages