Wine-makers have been using oak barrels since the Romans became frustrated with the tendency of amphorae to break. The difference between then and now, however, is the, until the 1970s, the only time they brought in new oak barrels was when the old ones fell apart. This is not to say that no-one had realized that in the first three years of their working life, oak casks could add an extra not of sweet vanilla spice to the wines they contained – nor that certain forests produced wood with distinctive and attractive flavours. But the systematic use of oak as an ingredient did not begin until the best chateaux of Bordeaux used the newly acquired funds from the post-war vintages to replace tired casks and New-World wine-makers, eager not to miss a trick, followed in their footsteps...
There is no question that the flavour of oak can improve and add complexity to a wine – and that particular styles of wine work better with particular styles of oak (Rioja and Australian Shiraz do well in American oak while fine Chardonnay prefers wood from the forests of Nevers, Allier or Vosges in France). New barrels are expensive however and, even if “scraped” and re-fired, have a relatively short life. Flying Wine-makers (see P. 25) and others achieve something of the same effect by putting the oak – in the form of chips – in the wine rather than vice versa. For some odd reason, this practice is frowned on by Old-World authorities.
Traditionalists frequently complain about wines being “over-oaked” and even Professor Emile Peynaud, the so-called “father of modern Bordeaux” and the man often credited with and blamed for creating the fashion for new oak, believed that few wines are concentrated and complex enough to support the 100 per cent new oak they are often given.
Thirty year on, Professor Peynaud’s suspicion of oak abuse is beginning to strike a chord with wine-makers. In 1995, Andrew Pirie’s Pipers Brook winery in Tasmania won “White Wine of the Year” at the International Wine challenge with a unoaked Chardonnay, while the first reds made in Chile by Paul Pontallier and Bruno Pratts of Bordeaux were bravely almost devoid of obvious oak flavour.