I'm not sure if the noun has officially morphed into a verb: to oak. And I don't think it's an official adjective yet, since "oaky" still sends my computer's spell-checker into gyrations. Oakiness, an indefinable yet ubiquitous presence in wine that's derived from wood barrels, is something hated or loved by many a drinker. Winemakers use oak during fermentation and/or aging to soften harsh corners and enliven an otherwise boring wine. Much like a chef has herbs and spices, vintners possess a full pantry of oak tools that create the flavors in your glass.
Invented long ago from wood plentiful in Europe, the sturdy, rotund oak barrel began as easy transport for wine. Vintners soon discovered that soaking in the barrel's oily and tannic belly not only improved the flavor and body of its contents and also preserved it. But the effect is not just good seasoning — technology later revealed another advantageous angle: micro-oxygenation. This geeky term means the porous wood allows a minute amount of oxygen to seep through its walls, coaxing the wine to higher levels of Zen.
If you've sensed vanilla or smoke emanating from your glass, it didn't start with the grape. It started in the forest. Oak trees, like the fruit they're influencing, vary by locale, with wine barrels originating in France, the United States, and increasingly Eastern Europe. A wine poured from a French oak barrel evokes rich, elegant vanilla; American oak, sweet coconut and earthy tobacco; and Polish or Hungarian (aka "European") offer profiles similar to French yet not as powerful. After it's felled, the wood staves are air- or kiln-seasoned for two to three years to tame the intensely aromatic, obdurate slabs. Then they head to the toaster. Like marshmallows over a healthy campfire, the oak is roasted to caramelize and tighten the wood's pores, a process called "bousinage." The deeper the toast, the more intense the flavor imbued to the wine while it ages. Winemakers mostly choose medium toast — proffering honey and spicy butteriness — and heavy toast, which introduces robust cocoa, coffee, and clove.
These newly roasted barrels emerge richly infused, and with each year of aging use, that intensity wanes. After three to five vintages, the wine steeps out most of the oils and tannins, rendering the barrel "neutral" and essentially useless for winemaking use. Each barrel costs $400 (American) to $1,200 (French), so it's a hefty investment to craft a better beverage.
Some wineries, however, take the cheap route. A few years ago, less expensive oak spirals, staves, and chips were added to the spice rack. Though considered blasphemy in the hallowed "premium" category, these shortcuts provide some raw wood flavor but less of the barrel's subtle, sweet richness, according to most winemakers.
But does all this experimentation and money birth a better wine? Michael Eckstein, winemaker at Franciscan Oakville Estate, poured barrel samples of the same wines aged in American, European, and French oak for me. The glaringly discernible differences floored me. A merlot in French tasted more subtle and elegant than that aged in a Hungarian barrel, and a cabernet in American oak emerged astringent and green compared with the soft, vanilla-infused French version. But the malbec sampling was the shocker. Its French rendering reeked of beefy, funky earth, and the American oak displayed layers of fruit and softness. Same malbec, completely different results because of the company it kept for 18 months. Go figure — maybe that's what prison is like.
With this exercise, I learned that, like cooking, a wide variety of woody ingredients allows you to fashion a tastier wine. And oak, whether you like it or not, is much like salt and pepper — basic and essential.
Wente 2003 Merlot Crane Ridge Livermore Valley Sweet, full-bodied, and forward. Intense, jamlike black cherry, a hint of freshly grated coconut, and earthy tobacco with mild yet obvious tannins. I could still taste the wine a minute after it was gone — a delicious vanilla finish.