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Change Agents

The Timeless Tradition of Oak Maturation is Changing

As drinkers turn away from heavy oak flavors, oak aging is evolving

Mike Dunne By February 16, 2022
illustration of oak barrels
Photo illustration by Pix

Whether at winery or winery website, the wandering eye of a visitor almost invariably lands on regiments of squat oak barrels. They may be lined up tidily along the curving wall of a cave or stacked high in the low amber light of a cellar, their heads branded with the name of winery, cooper, and forest.

Whether they have wine in them is beside the point. Their proud presence is meant to send a message: We care about the tradition, mystique, and romance of winemaking.

For 2,000 or so years, winemakers have relied on barrels coopered from oak, first for storing and shipping wine, then to take advantage of the happy happenstance discovery that time in barrel enhances a wine’s structure, texture, cohesion, and layering. Now, faced with dynamic shifts in consumer tastes, winemakers are reimagining their exploitation of oak in both form and function. Some are dialing back their use of oak, others are kicking it up to the point that wine can be as suggestive of apple pie as apple.

What’s driving the change

Less than 2% of the world’s wine ever sees the inside of a barrel, according to France’s National Forests Office. French white oak is the gold standard for wine barrels, of which 600,000 are assembled in France annually, a third of the global output. Two-thirds of the French yield is exported, with the United States the single largest customer outside France.

Yet, the customary 59-gallon French barrel long favored by winemakers is losing cachet beyond the most prestigious and guarded appellations and estates.

For one, it faces intensifying competition for the fermenting and aging of wine from such alternatives as stainless-steel vats, concrete tanks, earthen amphorae, and polyethylene tubs. These options can be cheaper, and they offer novelty, flexibility, and convenience, say winemakers and their suppliers.

What’s more, submerged within many of those alternative containers is oak, albeit in odd forms — stave-like planks, fan-like paddles, and no end of dominos, marbles, blocks, balls, beans, and, yes, even chips, which when they began to gain popularity among winemakers four decades ago were derided as a cheap shortcut that flew in the face of tradition.

white oak trees in Saint-Palais Forest in France

Saint-Palais Forest, home to French white oak, the gold standard for wine barrels. Photo courtesy of Cork Supply.

But all are being embraced today as winemakers cope with rising costs, labor challenges, and the desire or need to get wine to market as fast as they can, given that shortcut adjuncts are faster than barrels for enhancing a wine’s complexity, clarity, harmony, structure, texture, aroma, and flavor.

“There are four sides to a chip of oak, not one,” says Anna Marie dos Remedios of Idle Hour Winery in California’s Sierra Nevada foothills.

Stylistic shifts also are affecting oak’s role in winemaking. Winemakers are replacing at least some of their standard barrels with larger oak casks — puncheons, foudres, and the like with capacities up to hundreds of gallons.

That change is being driven by a growing sense among winemakers that Americans want to savor more fruit in their wine and less of the chocolate, vanilla, leather, smoke, and other suggestions attributed to oak barrels. The larger the vat, the less exposure and absorption for the wine.

“They want to respect the nuances of the vineyard with wines that are more elegant, more terroir-driven,” says Nicholas Keeler of winemakers responsible for the uptick in orders for larger oak formats. He is the North American sales director for the cooperage Allary Tonnellerie France, based at Archiac, just south of Cognac.

“The market is going to larger formats, even in California,” says Alessandro Paci, sales representative for the Italian cooperage Garbellotto L’Arte Del Bottaio. “Winemakers want to preserve the wine fruit, not have it overrun by oak.”

Larger barrels are not the only way winemakers are dialing back on aromas and flavors delivered by oak. They also are asking for more restraint in the toasting of staves that yields sensory sensations that do not originate with grapes. Toast today is trending to blonde and amber rather than more intense roasting suggestive of espresso.

“Winemakers are seeking a lighter punch from oak,” says former winemaker Janice Boswell of The Boswell Company in San Rafael, California, which represents three family-run French cooperages. “They aren’t after the crème-brûlée and butterscotch influence so much. They want more citrus notes.”

New characters emerge

Even winemakers who have built their following with an exuberant exploitation of oak are rethinking their use of wood. One is Jeff Runquist, whose 35 or so wines put up each harvest under his California brand Jeff Runquist Wines are recognized for the plush texture and rich concentration derived in part from his 800 oak barrels.

But he is lightening his hand cautiously, careful not to radically rewrite his stylistic signature. “I can’t walk away from the smooth character and the veneer of caramel and oak in our wines. That’s our house style, but I am dialing back on the big chewy oak tannins that dry your mouth out,” Runquist says.

Jeff Runquist headshot

Jeff Runquist of California brand Jeff Runquist Wines, is known for smooth, caramel house style wines from oak barrels. Photo courtesy of Jeff Runquist.

While several winemakers are reducing oak on their wines, some are keener on adding or amplifying sensory sensations that can be delivered by wood.

At least, coopers are launching more radically creative wood products, and claim they are finding a receptive audience among winemakers.

Russ Karasch, a Minnesota barrel cooper for more than three decades, is one of the more industrious and inventive practitioners providing alternatives to the customary barrel. His mantra these days is not so much about putting the wine in barrel as putting the barrel in wine.

He has done this by creating and refining a series of oak sticks engineered to draw ever more influence from the wood when they are immersed into wine; by inventing the “Squarrel” a rectangular stainless-steel frame to which staves of various kinds of oak are bolted; and by advocating for new kinds of wood, such as Mongolian oak from China, Spanish cedar from Mexico, and amburana from Brazil, the latter a veritable spice rack of cinnamon, allspice, and nutmeg even before it is toasted.

While more winemakers are opting for lighter toasts, others are being tempted by new exotic toasts evocative of pastry shops and candy stores, promising to imbue wines with suggestions of butterscotch, marshmallow, croissant, and tiramisu.

Oak Wise of Lodi, California, which for 35 years has been providing winemakers with oak adjuncts, lately has launched a series of toasts that includes confection, think bark butter crunch, pastille, candied fruit, filo pastry, and roasted nuts, and cookie jar, a mélange of vanilla custard, baking spice, brown sugar, and raw cookie dough.

Whether winemakers bite remains to be seen. In the meantime, how are consumers to tell whether their wine has been in barrel or treated with an oak alternative?

What this means for wine taste

Under federal laws governing the wine trade, winemakers are not compelled to disclose on labels how the wine was exposed to oak. Terminology on labels can be a sly giveaway, however. If a label says the wine has been fermented or aged in oak barrels, consumers can take the winemaker at his or her word. Alternatively, if the label says something along the lines of “aged on oak,” “aged with oak,” or “touched by oak,” the consumer can assume that adjuncts were used.

Price is another indication. With few exceptions, if a wine priced $25 or less has been exposed to oak, the wood likely has been an alternative, not a barrel.

Even winemakers can have difficulty discerning whether a wine has been in a barrel or otherwise influenced by oak. Michael McClendon, co-owner and winemaker of Sage’s Vintage, a custom-crush winery at Nacogdoches, Texas, likens a wine finished with oak adjuncts to a high-end Chevrolet, while a wine from barrel would be a Cadillac.

“The well-made wine with adjuncts is going to be for all intents and purposes as enjoyable as the barrel-produced counterpart. However, the amount of polish that the barrel aging will add is notable,” says McClendon. “It’s like the Pareto 80/20 principle. Eighty percent of these wines are the same, but the barrel aging is responsible for the 20 percent that can take a wine from good to great.”

Michael McClendon headshot

Michael McClendon, co-owner and winemaker of Sage’s Vintage in Texas. Photo courtesy of Sage’s Vintage.

That perspective helps explain that while French coopers ordered less oak for staves over the past two years, largely because wildfires in Australia and California reduced demand, sales of barrels lately have rebounded, including sales of the classic stout barrel that has long greeted visitors to winery and winery website.

Whether the wine to emerge from them evokes just a traditional whiff of something other than fruit or suggests a tour about the pot au chocolat, crème brûlée, or croissant will depend on how a winemaker perceives his or her audience. Either way, buckle up for the ride.