People seem to hate oak. OK, maybe not everyone, but most people I talk to about wine these days. Often enough, someone looking to buy wine will tell me that they will try anything but “oaky” wine, and when I recommend a bottle, one of the first questions people ask me, anxiously, is “Is it oaky?” Almost no other style of wine seems more universally deplored today than over-oaked wine – with the possible exception of sweet wines. And it’s no wonder. At its worst, a heavily oaked wine, especially when the oak is new and toasted, is like a sloppy makeup job or a botched plastic surgery: The effort to manipulate is so obvious that it becomes distasteful.

But using oak in winemaking should be primarily about enhancement, much like a beautifully done makeover. A good makeup artist knows the line between enhancing a client’s beauty and covering it up entirely. A good winemaker knows the line between enhancing her wine with oak and covering up the wine’s inherent beauty. The former is seductive, the latter borders on grotesque.

Do people really hate wines that have seen oak? I doubt it. To begin with, there is a spectrum of oak usage in winemaking and some of it is employed well. If you’re going to be selective about oak, it’s helpful to understand that spectrum so you can zero in on some helpful particulars. Here are a few questions you can ask yourself and whomever you buy wine from to ensure you’re being tastefully choosy – not ignorantly biased – about how much oak your wine has seen.

What kind of oak is this wine aged in? Wine is aged, mainly, in two types of wood. American oak imparts flavors of coconut and, sometimes, dill. French oak lends vanilla and baking spice flavors. You can decide which flavors you prefer and choose a wine based on the kind of barrel used.

 How new or used was the oak? If a barrel is brand-spanking-new it will, obviously, impart more oak flavors and aromatics to the wine it contains. Used barrels, usually after two or three uses, will cease to give off obvious oak aromatics. Do you want wine that tastes a lot like wood or not so much? The age of the oak matters.

 How long was the wine aged in oak? Obviously, the longer a wine is in contact with wood, assuming it’s new wood, the more it will taste like wood. Duration matters.


 How big was the wine barrel? As an example, smaller barrels, or barriques, impart much stronger oak aromatics than larger barrels, foudres. More surface area of the wine in a small barrel is in contact with the barrel than in a large one – which means large-barrel wines will absorb less oak than small-barrel wines. Size matters.

Putting these variables together means if you’ve got some chardonnay (aromatically neutral), and you house it in brand-new, oak barrels for 18 months, you’ll end up with a wine that tastes like warm baking spices and apples, or tropical fruits. On the other hand, if you have chardonnay that sees 12 months in thrice-used, American oak barrels, you’ll have a wine that tastes like tart apples, and citrus with hints of coconut. These are broad generalizations, of course; nonetheless, these questions will help you fine-tune your understanding of just how oaked you like your wines. When you know that, you’ll be better able to describe the kinds of wines you like to your local wine shop or sommelier. Perhaps even more importantly, you’ll avoid the most obvious indication of being a wine novice: the rejection of an entire class of wine simply because, once, you had a bad experience of one.

Now let’s put these ideas into practice, always a pleasant part of learning about wine. Here are two wines to try that illustrate these principles. One wine aged for an extended period in new American oak is Lopez de Heredia’s Vina Gravonia, distributed here by Mariner Beverage. The wine, made from an indigenous Spanish varietal called Viura, is quite aromatic with a plentiful bouquet of coconut. It’s a strange creature to be sure and not for everyone, but it is an exemplar of American oak barrel-aged wine.

The Flowers Chardonnay is a personal favorite. It’s aged in a combination of new and 1- to 2-year-old French barrels. The baking spices and apple aromatics are clear and obvious, but not overdone and sloppy. Pine State Beverage distributes the Flowers Chardonnay, and it’s sold, at least the last time I checked, at Whole Foods.

Bryan Flewelling is the wine director for Big Tree Hospitality, which owns three restaurants in Portland: Hugo’s, Eventide Oyster Co. and The Honey Paw.

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