The Role of Oak in the Style of Wine

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Everything, it seems, goes in cycles, and so it is with the use of oak barrels in making wine.

Toward the end of the 20th century, wines that were lovingly referred to by their makers as “big oaky monsters” were all the rage. The more oak flavors a vintner could impart into a wine — whether it Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon or red blends — the better.

Some vintners even began to age their bright and refreshing Sauvignon Blanc wines in oak barrels and labeled them “Fumé Blanc.” The late Robert Mondavi was among the leaders of that movement.

Over time, however, preferences changed. It was suggested that a good number of vintners overdid it. In a good number of cases, the aromas and flavors imparted by the oak barrels overwhelmed the fruit, earth and other impressions of the wine.

Lots of flavors could be identified by wine experts, but those flavors seemed to exist as individual components rather than as parts of a well-balanced whole.

Quite honestly, inexperienced judges at various wine competitions didn’t help matters. After tasting a group of, say, a hundred Cabernets over the course of a few hours, palate fatigue would set in, many of the wines would seem to taste the same, and the only ones that stood out were those “big oaky monsters.” And those wines, because they stood out in the crowd, began getting the gold medals and “Best of Class” awards.

It was a vicious circle.

Americans, in a sense, were being trained to expect a lot of oak influence — aromas and flavors of vanilla, butter and baking spices — in their wines. The variety that skyrocketed in popularity as a result of this trend was Chardonnay.

Over time, however, public perceptions began to change. Those big, oaky, buttery, spicy wines were great for sipping and socializing, but virtually impossible to successfully pair with food. As the ranks of “foodies” grew, the desire for more food-friendly styles of wine grew with it.

Today, in a sense, we have returned to the 1970s — a time when most wines were defined by their fruit flavors. The “big oaky monsters” are still out there for those who embrace that style, but the present stage of the ever-evolving cycle is defined by fruit-forward, food-friendly wines.

Just be aware that you do have a choice, and both styles of wine have their benefits. When it comes to wine enjoyment, the only palate that really matters is yours.

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