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The Truth About Oak in Wine

The Truth About Oak in Wine

Some guests who arrive at our tasting room tell us that we are becoming known in the valley for serving “light wines." 

True, among all of our wines, lighter wines do appeal to many of our visitors, such as Grenache Noir, Gamay Noir and Tierra red blend, lighter wines made in a style that are best suited to those grape varieties.  Gamay follows the Beaujolais Nouveau style, where oak is never used.  Our Grenache “Alban” clone has such intense aromatics and flavor, often associated with the Chateauneuf du Pape region, that we feel it simply doesn’t need any oak.

Some of our bold red wines (made with generous oak) are the PrimitivoPetite Sirah and our Seta red blend. Quite a bit more oak is infused in these wines during maturation.  Fans of these wines tell us, sometimes without necessarily saying it, that they enjoy a good oak infusion in their wines. Oak helps balance out the taste profile they expect in our bottles.

This leads to some big questions about the use of oak in wines:

Why use oak at all?

Can you make wine without oak?

How does oak improve the taste of wine?

Most importantly, is an “oakey” wine the same as a “good” wine?

To answer these questions, you first have to consider why such a strong-tasting ingredient as the wood from a tree is added to a rather delicate and complex, naturally made product.  Whose idea was this anyway?

Oak as a tradition in winemaking

It’s an age-old tradition to use oak in wines, dating back to the invention of oak trees (ha, ha).

The use of wooden barrels for wine had become widespread by 300AD, as barrels were easily rolled by ancient Roman soldiers, their shape encouraged easier transportation (compared to the pointy-shaped amphorae), and because barrels could be reused compared to the shatter-prone pottery alternative.

Oak (or quercus) quickly became the wood of choice for the new barrels, as it is both light and a cheap, abundant European wood with a tight grain, making for a waterproof barrel, easily shaped by coopers and sturdy enough to hold large volumes of wine.

When humans noticed that the oak itself was not only useful for transportation, but also actively improved the taste of the wine, barrels began to be used less for transportation but increasingly to mature wines to improve flavor.

Today, the flavor of oak is what many consumers want and have come to expect in their wine.  A strong oak aroma is often associated with a high-quality wine.  Ideally, winemakers will use oak to enhance or emphasize a certain flavor or tannin profile of a particular wine, especially in red wines. Aging wine in oak is done for several reasons:

  1. Tannins: slow ingress of oxygen through the barrel staves helps to soften the astringent tannins.

  2. Flavor: oak can impart flavor compounds, such as vanilla, coconut, smokiness, and clove.

  3. Concentration: controlled evaporation of water from the wine can concentrate flavors and structure of the wine.

Modern wines often use less oak

Certainly, not all wines destined for stardom are made with a lot of oak.  In fact, lately we see less and less oak in wines.  With today’s array of winemaking technology, there’s no requirement to infuse a “lot” of oak to make a great wine.  A winemaker can choose to make a spectacular wine while using very little oak, or even no oak at all.

The only mystery left is, what will consumers think of the flavor?  Will it taste like a great wine?  Perhaps there is a better chance today that someone drinking a lightly-infused wine will recognize its true greatness.

“Fruit forward” wines

These past few years, we’ve seen winemakers shift away from heavy use of oak to something that is broadly named “fruit forward” wine.  The central premise of a fruit-forward wine is to let the varietal characteristics of the grapes shine without the masking action of oak.

When wines are made in a true fruit-forward style, the differences from one wine to another are brilliant. You can try 10 wines from the same winemaker, each tasting very different from the others. 

At La Mesa, this is the goal we strive for. When we make our 20 different wines, we want each one to be a truly unique tasting wine. You simply won’t find that kind of variety among other wineries that use heavy oak.

Oak as a masking agent

In some cases, oak is used to enhance a weak wine or even to mask flaws and imperfections such as underripe or unpleasant flavors, lack of tannins or mouthfeel.

In some cases, when oak is all you can taste, not only do you miss out on the varietal differences between the wines because they all taste the same, but you may wonder, what are they trying to hide?

New oak vs. neutral oak: What’s the difference?

Throughout the industry, we often find oak descriptions using terms like “new oak equivalent” or “neutral oak” or “50% new oak”.  This can all be a real source of confusion, so let’s break it all down.

New oak is just as it sounds:  A brand-new oak barrel which is 100% new wood, never used. In that first year of use, the wine stored in that new oak barrel pulls a lot of the “oak flavor” out of the wood. Wine made in new oak will taste, well, oakey. Strong notes of vanilla or coconut, clove, and tobacco smoke.

That barrel is often reused.  On the second fill, it can impart ~15-25% of its original flavor profile while at third use, it would be declared neutral oak, because there is no more oak taste left to impart into the wine. Although the barrel has no more oak to infuse, it can, if properly stored, be reused for years to age wine until it deteriorates.

Wines that are made with “50% new oak” implies that, over the entire maturation period, half the wine sat in a new oak barrel while the other half was stored in neutral oak barrels.  Blended together, these two average out to 50% new oak.

Since no one in the industry acts as “the oak police” to monitor how much oak a given winery uses, this can lead to a lot of inconsistency and confusion.  Some wineries will tout their “fruit forward style” and smooth finish wines, yet the production notes indicate the oak infusion was as high as 80-100% new oak, which is a huge amount.  How can that wine possibly be fruit forward?

That said, many consumers still prefer a strong oak profile in their wine, and they will even pay a premium for those wines.  At La Mesa, to keep these folks happy, we make a few special wines with medium to heavy oak. If you are in the camp of big bold wines, you’ll want to try our Primitivo, Petite Sirah, Barbera and Syrah, all receive generous oak profiles.

Here at La Mesa we have done away with oak barrels entirely and instead store our wines in cutting-edge patented polymer tanks (Flextanks) that have millions of tiny pores to micro-oxygenate the wine the same way an oak barrel ages wine. To deliver the exact amount of oak we want to infuse during maturation, we add oak chips during aging.  These chips actually come from (surprise!) the manufacturing of oak barrels.  The chips have the advantage of being 100% evenly toasted, while the inside of a barrel can be inconsistent.  

When the chips are removed from the wine prior to bottling, the net result is that we have total control over the oak infusion process and quality.

Measuring up the exact amount of chips we add to each tank tells us exactly how much oak flavor will be imparted in that wine.  Using tanks also spares us the need to constantly cut down precious oak trees to refresh our barrel inventory, which is a net benefit to the environment.

Even with all these techniques and special knowledge, getting the “right” oak infusion on a given wine isn’t simple. A lot of effort goes into trial-and-error, from one year to the next.  After many years of side-by-side taste tests, taking into consideration the changing customer opinions, plus the highly variable growing conditions each season, we feel we have perfected our infusions.

At La Mesa there’s more we do to create a balance in mouthfeel and structure, which eliminate the need for heavy oak:

All our wine punch-downs are done by hand, a gentle way of imparting the color and (desired) tannins from the grape skins into the red wine.  In addition to color and tannin release, punch downs allow for necessary oxygen to aid fermentation and to homogenize temperatures inside the fermentation vessel. Undesired tannins from grape seeds remain untouched as they simply sink to the bottom of the tank.

We deliberately discard the grape seeds during production. About 80% of undesired harsh tannins are found in the grape seeds.  Crushing them into the wine will release their tannins, which is why it is important to separate them from the must before pressing.

To get it right, we invested in the only grape press in the industry that has a special balloon-air bladder system, made by Della Toffola in Italy.  This press pushes the grapes gently against a 360-degree perforated drum.  It is the gentlest press on the market, extracts the wine quickly, but also reduces contact with any remaining seeds left during pressing.

Yet another way we prevent unwanted tannins, is by carefully sorting the grapes at crush and removing leaves, any remaining stems and stalks from the grapes during and immediately after crushing. While this is a huge amount of work and painstaking, the stems, stalks and green jacks found in the fruit at crush, hold a large amount of “green” tannins that are equally undesirable.

If all of this sounds like a lot of trouble, you’re right!   We put a lot of thought and effort into our winemaking and pride ourselves on the quality and tannin balance we achieve in our wines.  A difference you can taste without the distraction from too much oak!

La Mesa Vineyards is a great place to try a large array of different wine varietals. We are known among Amador wineries and the ones near Plymouth as the winery with the most unique white wines (8 total) plus a diverse array of award-winning red wines, from light to bold to suit every palate.

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