Wine: Barrels of taste
What is it about oak that exercises the wine-drinking fraternity so much?
Is wine in oak not as old as time itself, with barrels the original of the species when it comes to storage and transportation?
Serendipity played a part when it was discovered that oak can also add to drinking pleasure. But it doesn't necessarily add to all wines and is not for all occasions.
Put the right wine in a barrel for a period -- with some wines even fermented in barrels -- and you get texture and spiciness. Buttery, toasty, nutty and vanilla are some characteristics that oak may add, ideally in subtle layers that have you smacking your lips.
Oak influences matters when it comes to pairing with food. In whites, it could be the difference between choosing a glass for simple fish or a creamy pasta. While an unoaked red that washed down last night's pizza will be a far cry from a top Bordeaux that spent a couple of years in a barrel before being enjoyed with a Sunday roast.
Unadulterated fruitiness is what a lot of white wines are about. Think clean, crisp Sauvignon Blanc (although the Californians do an oaked style called Fumé Blanc) or a piercing Riesling.
Then, Chardonnay seeks to please -- with or without oak. Trouble was, winemakers got carried away with the oak thing and at one point had us screaming for anything but Chardonnay. Hence the big fashion in unoaked Chardonnay.
But what about an awesome white Burgundy, a classically oaked Chardonnay from the grape's natural home? Wine needs enough fruit character to absorb the wood's flavour enhancers, and mass-produced wine does not deliver in the same way as a carefully selected vineyard.
Red wines generally lend themselves more to oak. The most recognisable oak whiff wafts from a glass of traditional Rioja. American oak, famously used by this Spanish region, is more sweet vanilla and coconut than French.
French? American? Hungarian? Three months or three years in barrel? Barrel size and age both matter. So does how the staves are toasted before they are bent into shape. 'Light, medium or heavy toast?', the cooper may ask the winemaker.
Never mind the fruit, can you get the character of the cooper in your glass?