To oak or not to oak
Oak maturation is an age-old practice in the production of red wines. Modern winemaking techniques are slowly doing away with maturation in oak barrels in favour of using less expensive oak products such as staves or chips or even rule out oak maturation altogether.
Why would winemakers veer off the traditional path of oak maturation?
Well, firstly, oak barrels are very expensive. Even though winemakers can use them for up to three to four years, the return on investment is quite low for the production of easy-to-drink wines, which are popular with novice consumers who make up a substantial segment of the wine market. It is understandable that winemakers will want to preserve the natural fruitiness of their red wines when making wine for these consumers. Another benefit of opting out on lengthy oak maturation is that winemakers can get red wines into the market a lot faster than if they were to invest in oak maturation.
Of course, the wine market does not only consist of novice consumers looking for an accessible, non-intimidating, easy-to-drink red wine. More serious wine drinkers enjoy and appreciate the benefits of oak maturation.
What are the benefits of oak maturation?
First off, roasted oak products have a pleasant flavour profile which seeps into the wine during maturation. Maturation in oak barrels, or even in the presence of other oak products, impart flavours such as vanilla, chocolate, and spice, and nuts to name only a few. These oak flavours add to the complexity of the wine.
The type of oak also impacts which characteristics are imparted into the wine. American oak tends to give prominent vanilla and coconut tones, while French oak tends to give more subtle spicier, nutty tones. Other factors that influence the impact of oak on wine is the duration of seasoning as well as the degree of toasting during the manufacturing process. Ageing wine in first fill (new) barrels compared to older barrels will also affect how much of these oak components seep into the wine.
Maturing wine in oak barrels has an additional benefit. It slowly allows oxygen to react with the wine which helps the wine to mature. As the wine matures, the tannins in the wines react with one another in a way that makes the wine taste smoother and less bitter and astringent.
Taking the middle-ground
Is there a middle-ground between barrel maturation and no oak maturation? Yes, to some extent. Some wineries use oak products such as chips and staves to impart oak flavours into wine. This style of oak maturation is less expensive than barrel maturation, and the same effect can be obtained in less time. However, some studies have found that the influence of oak chips and stave maturation does not last as long as barrel maturation. What about the effect of oxygen, you ask? Micro-oxygenation is a technology that slowly injects wine with oxygen to simulate the oxidation effect of barrel maturation.
So, to oak or not to oak?
In the end, the question of whether to oak or not to oak depends on your budget and target market. If you are playing in the easy-to-drink market, it is more cost effective to use alternative oak products or to skip oak maturation entirely. If you’re making wine for the connoisseur market, barrel maturation will be worth the investment.