Naked Wine Part Deux: The Oak Barrel Strikes Back

Sometimes the “Dark Side” of wine is as threatening as a shrimp-sized Darth Vader. Is the oak barrel really the villain it’s made out to be? Or is naked wine just another slick, new marketing tactic?

For a balanced point of view, here’s part of an article “Taking a Closer Look at Wine’s Conventional Wisdom” written by Eric Asimov of the New York Times in 2007:

ASSERTION No-oak chardonnay is better than oaked chardonnay.

TRUTH Oaky may be bad, but oak is good.

Back in the 1990’s, when the fashion for big, bombastic, oaky chardonnays was at its height, nobody would have taken this belief seriously. Fashion has changed and oak barrels have now been branded the villain for previous excesses. The fact is, for aging wine, no better vessel than oak barrels has yet been discovered. How those barrels are used is another question.

New oak can imbue a wine with all sorts of flavors, including vanilla, chocolate, coffee and just plain woody. But many people tired of over-oakiness, and so came chardonnays, mainly from Australia and California, called ”No Oak,” ”Metallico” (for the steel tanks in which no-oak chardonnays are made), ”Inox” (a French term for steel) and the like.

The no-oak method can produce wines that are lively, pure and delicious. It’s also much cheaper for winemakers than buying new barrels every year. But wines made in this style lack some of the crucial benefits of barrel aging, namely a very slight exposure to the oxygen that passes through the wood, which can enhance a wine’s texture and complexity. One way to retain the benefits of barrel aging while avoiding its excesses is to use older barrels, which impart fewer or no flavors to wine. Many great chardonnays in California and in Burgundy are made this way.

The bottom line: No-oak is an alternative style, but not necessarily a better one.

This whole controversy over the use of oak barrels is very similar to the argument over the use of cork in wine bottles. Yes, cork can be tainted, and their use creates more expense for the consumer (e.g. having to use corkscrews), but screwcaps (metallic closures) can’t compete with cork when it comes to aging and developing wine (for the same reasons explained above for oak barrels). Sometimes naked just means immature.