To oak, or not to oak: that is the question
Whether ’tis nobler to let wine languish in the belly of a barrel or soak in stainless steel.
The slings and arrows of the outrageous cost of oak
And take arms against a vast forest of trees. And by opposing end them? To let the grape run free;
No more, say winemakers; and by boredom we say nay
The cream and butter of chardonnay oft shocks
Their tongues that crave a better consummation
Devoutly wish’d. To refresh, to excite;
To excite: perchance to stimulate: ay, there’s the rub;
For in that oak what dreams may come
When we have cut off the vanilla and cream for the drinker,
Must give us pause for that’s what they desire: there’s the respect
That makes us money and makes calamity of so long life;
– Adopted from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet
Long ago in a land far away from the commercial shores of the United States, a European poured his hard-worked wine into an oak barrel for easy storage and transportation. Wood was plentiful in his parts, tall oak trees creating raw material for the rotund vessel. He soon discovered this handy shortcut improved the flavor of the former rotgut, smoothing out harshness and adding unique creamy vanilla, tobacco and caramel to his fermented beverage. But then the Americans got wind of it and, naturally, abused it.
These days, oak has overtaken the wine world, especially chardonnay. The unpleasant tang of burnt buttered popcorn, imitation vanilla concentrate and butterscotch often bullies wine like the big, mean kid on the playground. Originally coaxing elegance in France’s Burgundian whites, oak in America has gone over the top, ladies and gentlemen. Although its overwhelming presence has lessened in recent years, perhaps it’s time we appreciate chardonnay for what it’s supposed to taste like: Peaches, tropical fruit, citrus and tangerine. We’ve no one to blame but ourselves. Consumers buy the hell out of buttery, oaky chardonnay. Frankly, I’m not sure those drinkers actually enjoy the taste of wine, liking the image and idea of it but not the reality. Faced with drinking a beverage on its own fruity merits, they might flee like a child from vegetables. They need to cover up the natural flavor, much like fresh green beans versus the frozen, microwaveable version sold with that lovely chemical-tasting, lemon and garlic-“flavored” sauce packet.
This is not to say, however, that oak isn’t useful. It transforms red wines, taming beasts and richly infusing an otherwise one-dimensional drink. But oak should be sparingly used in whites, not slathered on like butter on toast.
And wineries of great pith and moment
With this regard their current turn awry,
And lose the great oak barrel – Soft you now!
The fair winemaker! Leader, in thy cellars
Be all your oak in whites forgotten, not remember’d.