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The American Oak Mess
Doing it right at Chateau Margaux, one of
the few places still making their own barrels.
My photo, 1993
First, let me set forth my oakily correct (O.C.) credentials. I like oak. Some varieties round off the edges of young wine, and make it accessible and lush, as with many Dominique Laurent bottlings. Other applications of it give the wine a nice tannic tang, for example, in the whites of Comtes Lafon in Burgundy. So, I do not object to the manner in which appropriate levels and types of oak often change the texture of some wines. In fact, real anti-oak crusaders will consider me too soft on oak. An oak-o, as it were. Not, perhaps, a card carrying member, but at least a fellow traveler. To me, oak frequently seems to be a big advantage, a spice that, when appropriately applied, improves a wine.
But there is a worm in the apple. Sometimes, oak dramatically changes the flavors of the wine, too. This, I consider to be an offense of greater gravity and a more dangerous threat to balance. The big offender in this regard is American oak. Gobs of new American oak produce intense flavor changes, unlike the more neutral French varieties. Soon, you are describing the wine as having licorice, coconut or dill characteristics. It is not the wine that you are describing. It is the oak. Typical wines with these characteristics from new American oak include Silver Oak cabernets, Behrens & Hitchcock cabernet, Elderton Command Shiraz, and Caymus Cabernet.
What causes the differences between French and American oak apart from pure quantity of new oak? Several reasons, not all well understood. People with better technical credentials than I say that oak flavors are more moderate from oak grown in cooler climates. Flavors may moderate when wood is dried slowly by air (French, 2 years) rather than kiln-dried (American, a few months). European oak is a different species entirely (assuming that's the correct biological term!). Even the way the staves are cut can make a difference. Now, let me add, for the techno-geek crowd, that it has been suggested to me that not all American oak--and there are many varieties-- inherently has to have these powerful, flavor-altering characteristics. The real answer may lie in the traditional methods of making American oak barrels, such as the kiln versus air-dried methods mentioned above. Then again, it may not. Maybe manufacturing technique is the issue, but there is no question that different types of wood can impart different flavors.
For my purposes, it does not matter at present. When I use the term "American Oak" here, it should be understood that I am talking about its traditional demeanor. It may well be that it is possible to create American oak barrels that do not produce the same strong flavor overlays if one uses the same techniques that the French do. Be that as it may, at the moment, however, American oak is generally distinctive and powerful, and how it shows today by traditional methods is what I am talking about. By the way, in referring to "oak" that imparts strong flavors, of course I mean "new" oak as well. Old oak imparts less and less flavor as time goes by.
How powerful is American oak? Simply put, gobs of new American oak obliterate the varietal flavors of a wine. You simply cannot tell what you are drinking any more. How powerful? Powerful enough so that I once inserted a mature, American-oaked zinfandel into a cabernet tasting, and no one noticed that there was a zin next to a cab. Both had similar levels of American oak. How powerful? Well, check out this wine. It's French, but I bet they used American oak, or some offbeat variety. Charmes-Chambertin. In that regard, let me add that Americans are not the only ones using American oak. The Aussies, in particular, seem to love it. Even some French winemakers have experimented with it.
Why would winemakers use such a powerful substance? To be sure, lesser winemakers may not care whether they destroy the flavors of the rich fruit harvested in the vineyard. They may not have any rich fruit to destroy. But people like Caymus and Elderton sure do. So, why? I do not think anyone started using American oak as a flavor or a style statement, although by now it may be one. It may well be at this point in time that some people accustomed to these wines find it to be a familiar flavor that they have come to like and expect. But the reason American oak came into vogue is much simpler. Namely, French oak barrels--at least when made and dried in traditional, top of the line fashion--are hideously expensive. American oak is cheap. I have heard estimates ranging from five to ten times less expensive. Magnifying the scope of this dilemma is the fact that oak barrels cannot be bought just once. It is new oak that imparts the most obvious changes. If you want to apply oak, you need new oak. That means buying new barrels every single year. If you can save lots and lots of money every year---remember, this is an industry in which the question "How do you make a small fortune in the wine biz?" is answered by "Start with a large one!"---you may survive. New oak barrels are an expensive enough proposition so that in Bordeaux, although there are exceptions, it is typically only the First Growths in Bordeaux that have traditionally been able to afford to use 100% new oak. Now, if you can oak your wine for $5 per year per vat (whatever that may mean; it's just an analogy) instead of for $35 dollars per year per vat, and some consumers actually seem to like it that way anyway......
In short, cost factors are the only reason American oak became popular. If French oak were as plentiful and as cheap, no one would have bothered searching for alternatives that changed the nature of the wine so dramatically.
Let's go back to one issue alluded to earlier: some people like the flavor of American oak. The more the better, apparently. So, let me admit that there is nothing inherently offensive about the flavor, unlike, for instance, heavy brett. (Oddly, the very people who get most excited about too much oak seem to excuse any level of brett. At least the oak additive sort of tastes good! But that's another article. ) Let me even add that there are still wines with American oak overlays that I like and am willing to buy, although for me it is a question of deciding whether their virtues outweigh their flaws or not, whether they show some reasonable balance. Of course, it helps if the winemaker backs off the oak application. That is, they should not oak the wine the same way they would if they were using French oak. Give it less time in new barrels, and don't oak the entire run. It is possible to still use some American oak in a less aggressive fashion, in other words. It would be better to use more neutral French oak, to be sure, but realistically, given the cost issues, that will not be possible for all wineries. Some winemakers have managed to use American oak relatively judiciously. Paul Draper (Ridge) is a prominent example. Monte Bello is never overwhelmed by oak and is simply great wine. Still, I'd rather ditch that coconut flavor than keep it. What's the point of changing the flavor of the wine even a little? And it was Ridge, too, that made that zin I spoke of earlier that was indistinguishable in a blind tasting from a cab because the most prominent taste of each wine was new American oak, not fruit. So even the best and most judicious winemakers need to use caution with a taste so powerful.
Ultimately, for me the key issue is not whether the oak tastes good but whether we want to taste the wine we paid for. Do you care whether you can distinguish cabernet from syrah after the heavy American oak overlays are applied? It may indeed taste good, but what is it? This is the key reason I have turned off wines like Silver Oak cabernets. Yes, they still taste good in a certain sense. But cabernet is my favorite varietal, and it is pretty hard to find any buried under all the new oak. I want cassis and currants, not dill and licorice. I have begun to resent that type of change to the fruit flavor.
But, so what about the person who still finds that the oak tastes good? In this regard, I would say several things. Drink what you like. But try some other things, too. The taste of new American oak has become so familiar that some people, I think, have forgotten what the fruit tastes like, especially those who grew up with more of a New World than French experience in drinking wines. What they have come to identify as a "good wine" is merely "good oak." They like a little wine with their oak, to put it in the vernacular. They really have yet to experience the fruit.
If you love that, so be it, but may I suggest that if what one really likes is not the flavor of the wine, but that heavy, sweet, oak flavor, there is no need to buy pricey wines like Caymus. In fact, why bother? You can probably find some cheaper shiraz you will like every bit as much. In a blind tasting, you may have trouble telling them apart. By analogy, think of a Kir Royale: champagne with chambord added. It tastes good. I like it, too. But (notwithstanding the tendency of some pricey French restaurants to attempt to force you to buy it with expensive champagne as a base), what would be the point of obliterating a really fine champagne with chambord? Chambord and non-vintage brut works very well, thanks. No need to destroy Cristal. Because once you add the chambord, you can't tell a whole lot about the champagne's nuances any more. So, too, with the heavy applications of American oak.
I can't tell you the oak flavor overlay is bad tasting on its own terms. I CAN tell you that you are not tasting the wine. Whether you care about that is ultimately up to you. But good wine tastes pretty good on its own terms, too. One of the most exciting things about experimenting with wine is its variety of fruit flavors. When it all tastes the same, and with heavy applications of new American oak, it all does, I think we have lost something important. Something, I think, that goes to the essence of what the fine wine experience is all about in the first place.
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