To Oak, or Not to Oak
Winemakers make choices on a daily basis that could affect their end product. Something I’ve been hearing about lately is the material of the tanks used for fermentation and aging. I’m sure each material has its own argument, so let’s see if I can demystify it a little bit…
Emile Peynaud first advocated for the use stainless steel tanks in the 1960s. He noticed their use in the dairy industry and figured they could also be used in winemaking. Chateau Haut Brion, in 1961, was one of the first wineries in the world to install stainless steel tanks. It wasn’t long until many other wineries followed suit.
One advantage of stainless steel tanks is the ease of maintaining temperature during the fermentation process. A cooled chamber surrounds the tank, and controls on the tank allow the winemaker to adjust the temperature during fermentation. These tanks can also make it easier to prevent oxidation, watch the fermentation, and to perform certain tasks during the process. Punching, pumpovers, racking, and transferring to other containers are all made easier by the design of the stainless steel tank. They can also be used for cold stabilization, and they have a longer useful life than other containers making them more economical over time. Plus, they are completely neutral in the winemaking process, meaning they don’t impart anything into the wine like oak aging can.
Oak aging is one of the simplest ways for a winemaker to influence the final product. Its effect can vary depending on the age of the wood and how long the wine is in contact with it. French oak infuses more subtle flavors into the wine. It is grown in a cooler climate and has a tighter grain than its American counterpart. American oak has a looser grain and infuses more of the oak characteristics. The staves used in American barrels are also sawn instead of being split, and that also imparts more of the oak characteristic. Barrel toast can also influence what is infused, and that’s another winemaker decision… How much toast? Temperature control can be a challenge during fermentation.. you can’t regulate the temperature of each individual barrel, so you’re at the mercy of the room in which the barrels are stored.
It’s said that because they are large and used for so many years that wooden vats are neutral and do not infuse characteristics into the wine. Having said that, I’ve witnessed several masters (MS) call large neutral oak in a blind tasting setting. Wooden vats are more difficult to clean and sterilize and provide little control over temperature regulation.
The Romans were known to have fermented their wine in concrete. I think this is something of a “Goldilocks spot.” Many winemakers like the idea that concrete tanks are more porous than stainless steel ones, but not as porous as oak. This midrange porosity allows minute oxidization and has the added benefit of maintaining a cooler temperature during fermentation, which makes for a richer, more fruit forward wine than what comes out of an oak barrel.
Try them for yourself and tell me what you think! Here a few great bottles I’d recommend:
- Harken Chardonnay | Oak barrel | $28
- Arigolas Cannonau | Barriques and cement vat | $28
- Poema White | Stainless steel | $13
If you ever have wine questions, are looking for advice, or just want to talk about wine, please stop in and say hello!
Will Olendorf, Maynards Market & Kitchen Sommelier