Aging wine in new oak barrels has a bad reputation in certain circles, and it’s not entirely unfounded. When used excessively, new oak can overpower the fruity or earthy nuances in wine and, in worst case scenarios, may be deliberately employed to hide disagreeable flavors or even flaws.
However, some forward-thinking winemakers have an affinity for using new oak in the cellar. Here’s why.
How (and Why) to Use New Oak
Burgundy-based winemaker Pierre-Henri Rougeot uses up to 30% new oak for fermenting and aging white wines. He finds that new oak offers a sense of security and reliability that used barrels lack.
“When you buy old oak barrels from other wineries, they can be contaminated by Brettanomyces, have too much volatile acidity, etc.,” he says. “We prefer to have the control of the barrel life from start to finish.”
“New oak stabilizes the wines in a natural way, through micro-oxygenation via its pores,” he says. “New oak also matures and polymerizes the polyphenols of the wine, giving complexity, smoothness and harmony.”
Jacquelin agrees, noting that new oak has better micro-oxygenation capabilities than older oak, which is favorable during fermentation and helps to develop more complexity in the wines.
“Micro-oxygenation enables a number of complex reactions and ensures the metabolic sustainability of the microorganisms present throughout the life of the wine,” he says, adding that new oak can help wines develop unique aromas and more structure.
New oak varies, however, and so do its benefits. Size and origin will impact how an unused barrel will affect wine.
“For example, we may utilize a new 500-liter barrel, which has less surface area, and thus less/slower extraction, than a standard 225-liter barrel,” she says. Larger formats are also useful for high-alcohol wines, which extract oak influences at a greater rate.
The degree of toast on a new barrel is key. Hood White tends to choose barrels on the lighter end of the toast spectrum because she prefers how they interact with her wine. “The goal is to never overpower the fruit, but rather provide accents that strengthen aromatic diversity, balance textural and phenolic character, and enhance the overall breadth of a wine,” she says.
A Balancing Act
Cyrille Jacquelin, winemaker at Domaine du Clos Frantin in Nuits-Saint-Georges, prefers to use new oak at the start of vinification for white wines and just after devatting for reds. “This allows a more respectful integration, as well as the development of complexity.”
He never ages his wines in 100% new oak, however. Instead, he finds it useful to use new in conjunction with old.
“When you have a wine with adequate structure and concentration, new oak can be very beneficial because it gives extra complexity, both in terms of aromatics and on the palate,” she says. “It also affects the texture of the wine, making it rounder.”
It’s a balancing act.
“Certain wines, I would dare to say, ‘need’ new oak to smooth them down and balance their intensive richness,” she says. “But the fact remains that new oak has a strong impact on the wine and if one uses it indiscriminately on all types of wines it can overwhelm the fruit and hide the peculiarities of the different varieties and terroirs.”
Tastes and Trends Change
Why, then, do stereotypes about new and old oak persist?
Some of it is cyclical, Hood White says. “There’s a rather passé idea that heavy oak associates to a higher-value wine, or oak attributes equate to a specific style of wine…[New oak] can certainly be used to cover flaws in wine or add character where perhaps fruit lacks, but there is so much more nuance when looking at its contributions.”
Consumer tastes are also changing and influencing winemaking as a result.
“Some years ago, super bold wines made with 100% new oak were the most appreciated by certain critics and consumers,” says Pozzolini.
Jacquelin finds that the fashion of excessively-oaked wines, which he refers to as “Parkerized,” has been replaced with oak-free and zero-sulfites-added wines.
“These new tendencies may also have their excesses but reflect the slow and always necessary evolution of things,” he says. “Oak has its place in this virtuous circle. If it is well managed, it is sustainable and will remain the cornerstone in the art of wine aging.”
Consumers and producers need to trust winemakers’ expertise, says Capaldo.
“In the past, oak was used as a shortcut for impressing the consumer, and the consumer could progressively see this and dislike it,” he says. “I believe this is the reason for this wrong connotation.”
Hood White agrees. “It is our job as producers to educate consumers on the variety of ways oak may impact wine and help broaden their understanding.”