Not using oak on wine is a time-honored tradition for many varietals and styles, and often for good reason. There are few things as disconcerting and deeply weird as a heavily oaked Riesling, and few rosé wines show better with a heavy layer of deeply toasted oak covering their finish. Oak just doesn’t make sense with many highly floral-aromatic wines, which is why only a few of them get exposed to it, but there are some reds that are happy without oak as well.
Almost all red wines do get at least some oak exposure, and the trend in the last 30 years has been to over-oak lesser wines to increase their price-point and salability. This is because oak is such an immensely useful tool. It’s often used in a knee-jerk way to bring out the character of wine (élevage), to cover flaws (cheating), to add a bit of glamour and sophistication to an otherwise undistinguished vintage (lipstick on a pig), and sometimes, just because “that’s the way it’s always been done” (mechanical winemaking).
A happy reversal of this state of affairs has come from one of the usual suspects: Chardonnay. Easy to grow, cropping well, and relatively simple to make into drinkable wine, Chardonnay became a target for oak abusers in the 1980s. Like many wine trends, it was inspired by Australians. They found that the more oak they added to their heavy, hot-climate Chardonnay wines, the better they sold. A little math showed them that barrels were too expensive for polishing wine in a plonk price category, so they tended to use gran-ulated oak products — by the shovel full. Throw in more serious wines (many from California) that used barrels like a weapon, and you had a bunch of expensive Chardonnays that were thick, viscous, creamy and woody.
More recently, “unwooded” Chardonnays have shown up. Some are still in the cheap and cheerful category (under $7 in most places) but others have more serious aspirations — Kendall Jackson, makers of one of the most popular and oaky Chardonnays in America, has started making an unoaked version, and the trickiest and most clever winemakers in the New World have discovered that slightly less over-ripe grapes and no oak can not only make a better wine — one more like an Old World white Burgundy — but also that leaving off a brand new barrel means they’re much cheaper to make — and sell.
Oak isn’t the answer to every winemaking question. To understand the complexity of the varietal character a grape can bring to a finished wine, it can be very useful to taste it without any oak at all. What will happen if we peel back the layers of wood and reveal the form of the wine underneath? To figure that out, it’s important to know what oak actually does. As the saying goes, if you want to break the rules, you have to know them first.
Why oak at all?
People have enhanced aromas and flavored wine with various things over the years, from herbs, fruits and honey to pine resin, seawater and lead-based syrup (yes, really), but in the very beginning, oak was never intended as a flavoring agent. It was a container.
Although coopers were making watertight wooden buckets nearly 5,000 years ago, these were all open-topped and wouldn’t seal airtight or stack well. Around 900 BCE, technologies improved and fully-closed, airtight barrels were available to store not only liquids, but anything that had to be shipped — barrels are impressively light and strong, stack well, are easy to move and handle, and keep things in good condition.
It was probably the very first person who kept wine in a barrel for any length of time who noted the amazing changes the liquid inside underwent: wines kept this way would become rich, complex and more flavorful than wines in clay containers (and way less “organic” than wines kept in animal skins!).
Part of this is due to small amounts of oxygen that get introduced into the wine through barrel handling: racking from barrels and topping up (to keep the airspace in the barrel to a minimum, preventing serious oxidation). More importantly from a flavor perspective, toasted oak has many complex chemical compounds, each contributing flavors or textural note to wines.
Most familiar of these are vanillins: phenols in the wood interact with the wine to produce sweet, toasty aromas of honey and tobacco, often described as “vanilla.” Barrels also have their own tannins, just as grapes do. Not only do they contribute to astringency, mouthfeel and structural complexity, some of them help protect the maturing wine from oxidation.
Aside from the flavor and aroma of fresh-roasted vanilla bookcase, oak also helps decrease “green” or tart, young flavors in wine. Oak is like fine grit sandpaper to a rough surface; leveling unevenness, taking off burrs, and giving a smooth, lustrous finish to a previously lumpy and scratchy wine.
Why and how to not oak your wine kit
Kit manufacturers are already producing kits that declare their wood-free status, all of which are currently Chardonnays. This is a response to the change in the commercial market, which they track very closely. As it is said, if planting a seed, follow the plough, do not walk ahead of it.
If you’d like to try other varietals au naturel, you first need to consider the way wine kits use subtle procedures to achieve commercial character. Many kits require you to add oak directly into the must before pitching yeast. This might seem a bit odd to non-winemakers, as pre-fermentation new oak is commonly only emphasized in commercial wine in regards to barrel-fermented Sauvignon Blanc, or Chardonnay. It isn’t unique to kits and kit manufacturers didn’t invent this technique. Like many great ideas, they stole it.
Before stainless steel was ubiquitous — 40 or 50 years ago — wines were mostly fermented in wooden vessels. Because of the difficulty (real or perceived) of sanitizing wooden fermenters, winemakers who could afford to, adopted stainless steel as soon as they could, reaping the added benefit of much simpler temperature control in the bargain.
This changed in the last 20 years as some commercial winemakers came to feel that wines fermented to dryness in stainless steel had less harmonious fruit character and were less complex even after barrel aging. This is because during fermentation yeast modifies oak characters, sequestering some of the sharper tannins and making the wine easier to drink much earlier, and interactions between wood and wine during fermentation generates furfural compounds that promote a coffee/tobacco note.
Of course, there are some issues with barrel fermenting red wine: one being that it’s only suited to small lots (if you’ve ever done a red wine from grapes, imagine getting 100 tons of grapes into and out of your barrels — wow!). There are also difficulties controlling temperature inside the barrels. Fortunately, oak products are there to rescue the situation: providing chips, chunks, powders, staves, spirals and beans so winemakers may get oak into wine without having to get the wine into wood, giving the same positive benefits at a much lower cost. They can be added directly to fermenting musts, even before the yeast, and cleanup is a breeze — they go out with the compost.
Post-fermentation oak has a more direct transfer of wood character but the same outcome: a layer of character on top of the fruit that helps harmonize and smooth the flavor and aroma of the wine and promote earlier drinking.
Summing up: Without oak your wine will have disjointed fruit character, less mouthfeel, lower complexity, won’t have any notes of spice, vanilla, coffee, or tobacco and will need longer aging before you can drink it — sounds like a winner, doesn’t it? That assessment is only from the point of view of someone who is already oak-positive; a real fruit-head/oak-negative type is more likely to view it as truer varietal fruit, cleaner flavor profile, a finish free of extraneous wood character, and a wine that rewards aging, which sounds like a lot more fun and worth taking a swing at.
Any wine your favorite kit-producer oaks can be unoaked, from aromatic whites, reds big and little, and anything in between. You’ll have a completely different flavor experience, but there are a couple of things to keep in mind. First, many reds achieve balance in fruit character with the help of wood tannins. In the absence of those tannins, the fruit that shines through might seem very aggressive — what’s called a fruit bomb. On the other hand, since oak can give sweet, vanilla notes, the fruit could be in more balance because the acidity of the red will be easier to perceive in the absence of wood.
Second, unoaked wine does require more age to come to drinkability. Without the creamy schmear of buttery wood to smooth out aromas and acid, fruit, tannins, alcohol, and any residual sugar, the wine will seem disjointed and jangled long after an oaky version has knit together. How long? Depends on too many factors to judge, but it’s likely to take 9 to 12 months before it stops being darty and nervous and comes to drinkability.
But when it does turn that corner, you will be drinking something very different and special: clean and unvarnished varietal fruit, harmonized only by the character that the grapes brought to it, the soil it was grown in, and your hand as a winemaker.