New Oak – Why Would You?

A few years ago I visited Fratelli Cavallotto, a producer in Barolo, Italy. Alfio, one of the brothers who now run the show, gave us his views on new oak use, a divisive issue in Barolo as it is in other tradition-heavy regions. At the time of the visit I already had a healthy disregard for wines with overt oak characters, but the way Alfio articulated it really cemented my opinions. The gist of what he said was: why would you?

Probably the most common reason winemakers use new oak is that it smells and tastes good! And plenty of people, from wine professionals to novices, enjoy oak flavours in their wines, whether or not they can identify those flavours’ origins. Nuts and spices, everything from coconut to vanilla to smokiness to caramel, these can all come from oak and are commonly seen as appealing in wines. Also, oak can cover up off flavours, improve colour stability, and add structure to a wine - all potentially positive things for the final product.

But for me it’s not quite that simple, for two different reasons.

Different wine producers have many different goals and intentions in terms of style, price point, intended market, and so on. So firstly let’s narrow it down a little and talk about wines, like Cavallotto’s, which have the aim of expressing a time and place. The land and the season from which they came. Terroir. Of course this is something that is given a huge amount of lip service by marketers, so let’s also assume that this is a genuine goal and not merely part of the sales pitch on a back label.

Now let’s talk about tools which are available to winemakers the world over. Be it commercial yeasts, new oak barrels, or the myriad of other products which can legally be used, the important point is that they are available to winemakers the world over. Doesn’t it follow that the use of these products necessarily obscures the uniqueness of that time and place which is trying to be expressed in the wine? For Cavallotto, this means solely using old, large format oak botti (i.e. no oak flavour imparted). I believe Alfio’s words were something like, “When you are trying to create something unique, why cover up even a small part of the wine with the obvious, predictable flavours from new oak?” He then made a face of sorts and in his Italian-ness managed to sound charmingly disgusted when he added, “Like vanilla.”

Now, there are plenty of wines on the market, the majority in fact, which don’t hold to such lofty, idealistic aims as expressing terroir, at least not in any meaningful sense. Although I have a preference for wines which do, this argument is not only about those wines.

With that in mind, the second reason is an even more important one because it applies to all wines, not only to the terroir-driven wines of producers like Cavallotto.

The plain truth is that ageing wine in new oak barrels adds flavour. So my question is this: why is it acceptable to add flavour to wine via storage in oak barrels yet it is so severely frowned upon to add flavour in any other way? Why can’t we add liquid essence of oak instead? Or, for that matter, essence of raspberry or violets or roasted nuts or cardamom or a sprinkling of cinnamon… Why is it different when the flavour comes from oak barrels? I have heard people claim the “traditional marriage of oak and wine” as a justification, but defending a practice solely because “it’s always been that way” is clearly flawed. Adding flavour is adding flavour; there is no way around that. I personally find it incredible that this inconsistency is completely ignored by the vast majority of the wine industry.

For the same reasons, the use of oak barrels is certainly not somehow morally superior to using “oak alternatives” like chips or staves. Some people seem to think it is cheating in some way to use chips, but it seems to me that, again, you’re adding flavour whichever method you use, so what’s the difference? The end result from using chips may be a wine with less well-integrated flavours and textures, but it is certainly no less noble to produce wine this way.

I suppose my argument is partly a personal stylistic preference in what I am looking for in wines, what I find interesting, and this quite reasonably varies from person to person. But also it’s about consistency in what is acceptable in wine production. Tradition is, in fact, most likely the reason new oak use is the norm, but it is not a good reason at all. It seems to me that adding flavour is a slippery slope towards a lot more potential manipulation, when at the same time the ideas of authenticity, integrity, and purity in wine are held so dearly. These ideas are important and help to differentiate wine from so many other products, and protecting them should be fundamental, not elitist.


Words by: Karl Coombes