The Irony of Oak

I was thinking about something last night as I drove north on 280 towards home. Oak-aged Chardonnay was all the rage from about 2005 to 2014. Big, toasty, buttery, popcorn-flavored California white wines with creamy textures and full-bodied richness. While there has always been a counterculture to that style of wine—the school of crisp, low-alcohol, cuisine-friendly white wines fermented in stainless steel—a more food-focused mindset started becoming fashionable a few years back. Today, even at my local pizza place where bulk commercial brands rule the day, unoaked white wines are the majority of what's available by the glass. That's a big change from what I saw happening when I first started in this business almost a decade ago. 

"Ugh....I hate oaky wines," you'll now invariably hear someone say each day in the store. 

Ironically, oak couldn't be more popular in other genres right now. Almost any other alcoholic beverage put into oak is like liquid gold at the moment. Whisky drinkers want more oak. Brandy drinkers want more oak. Gin distilleries are putting gin into oak. Big oaky cabernets are fetching huge prices. Limited edition beers aged in oak barrels fly out the door in seconds. Even Absolut vodka introduced a new oak-flavored edition this past year. Oak, oak, oak!!

Except with white wine. Oak has recently become totally uncool in that realm. But what's the difference, really? Why is oak perfectly delightful in some genres, but unacceptable in others? It doesn't make sense, especially when you look at the crux of the argument. The reason white wine drinkers shun new oak maturation is because they believe that it masks the true flavor of the wine. It hides flaws. It buries nuance. It takes something crisp and easily-drinkable and turns it into something rich and slowly-sippable. That's not what most people want these days from their white wine. Yet, it's exactly what the majority of the population wants from everything else. Oak literally does the exact same thing to red wine, whisky, beer, ale, gin, tequila, rum, brandy, pisco, cachaça, mezcal, liqueurs, cocktails, Champagne, etc. There's no difference whatsoever. 

It's funny how that works.

-David Driscoll

David Driscoll