Over oaked or over talked?

oak wine barrels


The use of oak in Australian wine.

More often than not, the term ‘oaky’ wine or oaked wine is synonymous with a bad wine or cheap wine. Combine this with the word Australia and you create a wine as popular as a funnel web in a lucky dip. The fact is that times have changed and in many instances, especially with new world wines, a wine is judged to be ‘oaky’ before it is even tasted. The tedious exercise of talking about over oaked Australian wines has had its day, with the country producing more seamless oak aged wines.

The use of oak in winemaking is used to change the flavour, tannins and colour of a wine. Oak preference is entirely subjective and it must be noted that the taste that oak imparts is not always the sole intention of a winemaker. Oak can be used to both ferment, and store or age wine. Oak imparts flavours such as smoke, sweet spice, cedar, tobacco, caramel, liquorice, and chocolate just to name a few.

It can be divided into the two most used kinds; European and American oak, both of which impart different flavours to wine. Most European oak comes from France, with some also coming from Eastern Europe and Portugal. France is the most significant producer though, as it makes the best quality and the greatest amount. The quality of oak is judged by the grain of the oak, and against the standard of French oak. Due to its intrinsic structure, French oak can not be sawn into planks, but the wood must be painstakingly split up. This makes French oak the most expensive starting at £600 per barrel and going up to £2000. French oak because of its grain and the fact it is split not sawn is more subtle.

American oak is commonly used in both Spain and Australia and is much less expensive than French oak (roughly half the price). It imparts a lot more flavour, bold spice and vanilla as well as being richer in tannins, thus appropriate for big ripe fruit forward Australian Shiraz and Rioja.

Other factors that determine degree of oakiness include the length of time the wood is dried prior to toasting, and the toasting process itself. Oak toasting can influence flavour but the longer the oak has been air dried for then the less toasty the wine will be, whereas oak air dried for a shorter period produces more barbecue flavours. Alcohol plays a part too, with wines of a higher ABV content extracting more oak flavours from the barrel.

Australia’s wine production and reputation grew solidly and steadily throughout the late 90’s. Australia enjoyed a huge wine export boom, and at one stage was the main supplier of wine to the UK even overtaking France! Australia received great reviews and popularity in the US too.

In the early 2000’s there was movement in the massive wine companies that dominated the Australian wine industry, with the massive American company Constellation, acquiring familial brands such as Hardy’s, Leasingham, Banrock station, and the Fosters group acquiring Southcorp. This resulted in both companies waging a discount war facilitated by UK supermarkets. To ensure a cheap, bulk, export wine could be supplied, inexpensive methods of oaking emerged. These included oak chips, shavings and powder. This Australian wine became synonymous with cheap, crudely oaked and mass produced wine.

Fortunately, we are now in a different phase, ownership has changed and there are impressive winemakers making great wines. The UK is now rediscovering cool climate Australian wine from MacLaren Vale, Clare Valley, Margaret River and Tasmania with ripe fruit and integrated oak. Often those wines passed of as too oaky are those that need a little more time in the bottle. Whilst it is a matter of personal taste, a well known Burgundian wine maker once said that wine can be ‘under wined’ but not ‘over oaked’.

25th June 2015

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