Catnip for Humans

 Oak makes me feel that way too Arthur!

Oak makes me feel that way too Arthur!


I’m eternally jealous of my extremely cuddly, overwhelming-affectionate feline life partner, Arthur. Amused by straws, stealing hairbands, and routinely punching my dog in the face, the little orange troublemaker also has hordes oflegal herb to roll around in and get insanely high silly.

If only all our days could be so well spent–napping, punching annoying things, and abusing addictive substances without consequence….

But wait, there’s hope! Stick your head in a well-toasted oak barrel, and you’ll be about as happy as  Arthur after an hour rolling in the ‘nip, according to enologist Jordan Ross, who introduced the basics of oak to me (and 35 other caffeine-starved wanna-be wine professionals) last week.

“Oak is catnip for humans,” he explained, suddenly jolting me awake and reminding me why I tend to love full, vanilla and butter-infused California chardonnays.

While many producers, and consumers, are slinking away from heavily-oaked wines, its FANTASTIC qualities for winemaking won’t be going out of style (unlike crop-tops and neon).

French and American oak barrels have been integral to winemaking for centuries, since they add structure-buidling tannins to the juice, which also give wine its ability to age for decades.  These tannins and wood compounds give an “oomph” effect to both red and white wines, which is what draws lushe people everywhere back to the barrel bottle for a second glass.

The key is moderation in oakiness, which winemakers achieve through using old vs. new barrels–a single barrel can be used up to 5 times, with each use resulting in gentler flavors–and in the toast of the barrel. “Toasting” is done by the coopers, who essentially blast new barrels with a flamethrower until it gets to be the desired color,  with different levels of toast imparting different flavors (Think: Bourbon vs. white wine).

Not only do barrels straight up look cooler than tanks, the compounds in wood bestow tons of flavor into the juice–the vanilla/coconut/popcorn/spice/oh-my-god-get-me-more combination is a classic reaction to oaked Chardonnay.  Essentially, that was my note from the Rombauer 2010 Carneros Charonnay when I tasted it. This juice is a perfect example of American oak–where butter, vanilla, and carmel flavors come together in a smooth, lingering ménage a trois. 

Los Vascos 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon Grande Réserve was

another oaked-up juice that didn’t disappoint.  A bright ruby, this cab had breakfast aromas–good Sourdough toast with a smearing of wild berry jam–and the strong, fruity grip of the juice didn’t disappoint in my mouth either.


Oak Uncorked:

Laura Loves:This article in Food and Wine about oak-aged cocktails, and how to do it yourself. (Hint: How I’ll be Christmas presents from me this year.)

Furniture, tables and wine racks made from used barrels like this one.

Fun Facts: Chestnut was often used to age wine, until winemakers realized too much air was being let in, and the barrels had to be coated in paraffin to prevent evaporation.

The portion of the wine that gets absorbed by the dry oak barrels is known affectionately in the biz as the “Angel’s Share.”

Since oak is such a hot commodity (and commands commodity-esque prices) many winemakers are using oak “chips”–essentially a giant teabag of bits from a wood-chipper–to create the barrel effect on their wines.

Oak in 140 Characters: Addicting. Big, bold, vanilla & tannin inducing power player. $$$ input, XXL result. Use jucidicously.

  • October 1, 2012
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