Image: Chateau Soutard
Oak, especially new oak, can add intense flavours (coconut, vanilla, clove spice) and tannins to a wine, which if used unskilfully, could undesirably mask the fruit.
(Written by Jennifer Docherty MW)
Understand how oak influences a wine
There are many factors that influence the taste and mouthfeel of a wine. But it’s easier to learn about oak influence first using whites rather than reds.
I would suggest getting two whites that come from the same area and same producer to compare. In class, I often use Shanxi’s Grace Vineyard’s entry level and reserve level Chardonnays to do this. Not only are they easy to buy in China but they are very representative of two different oaking levels (no oak and new oak) - they are also great value for money!
Outside China, you could also look into Burgundy.
Pick a reputable winery, then buy both a regular level ‘Bourgogne’ white and a higher level Commune or 1er Cru like a Meursault or Puligny-Montrachet (Village or 1er Cru), which will have seen more time in oak (with a proportion of definitely new oak). Compare these two wines and learn about complexity and the layers of oak: new oak (vanilla and spice), barrel ageing (nuts and sweetness) and lees (more on that later!) Spain is also a good place for this kind of comparison, especially but not exclusively for reds.
You can do the same exercise with Ribera del Duero or Rioja. Pick a winery, then buy different levels of wine – like one Joven and one Reserva or even a Gran Reserva. Again, taste them carefully, slowly and tease out the differences: the Joven will have little or no oak, the Reserva at least a year, and the Gran Reserva at least 2 years (of oak aging). You can taste this as the fruit is generally dominated by the oak by the two years of oak ageing.
No matter what, it’s quite important to pick wines from the same winery. This is because they are made in a similar style, but are still comparable. If you get wines from 2 different producers, then perhaps one has French oak and the other American, then you have yet another factor to confuse you.
(Written by Foneyee Walker)
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