The Society’s first meeting since February 2020 got off to a great start with 36 members present – despite the change of date to a Thursday. The speaker – Victor Maguire from the Association of Wine Educators should have been the speaker last March so here we were 18 months later to hear him talk about “To Oak or not To Oak.” Victor was a very informative speaker not just about oaking but the whole process of wine-making which made it a most enjoyable and interesting evening – science for the non-scientific as one member said. 

Oak is something we take for granted with wine, but as Victor explained it is a complex subject and makes a big difference to the wine. Why do we mature wine in oak barrels? Oak allows small amounts of oxygen into the wine to enhance flavours. Most of the oak comes from France where the grain is tighter and the USA and East Europe where the wood has wider pores allowing more air circulation giving a softer style of wine. The use of oak depends on the grape, year and the style of wine the wine maker wants to achieve. Unoaked wine tends to be lighter, fresher and less complex. 

With oak 225 litre barrels/barriques costing up to £1,000 each the production is carefully nurtured – the wood is stored outside for 2 years, the inside of the barrels are toasted to add flavours. Used barrels are reused in subsequent vintages or sold to other wine producers. During maturation the barrels are stirred every 2 weeks. Less scrupulous wine makers use much cheaper oak staves or bags of oak chips to try and give same effect but this often results in bitter flavours. Other methods of maturing or storing wine include stainless steel tanks for white wines which will improve creaminess after 2 years, very large wooden barrels (no oak affect), concrete vats and concrete or clay eggs – amphora shaped, and qvrevi which the Georgians have used to ferment and store wines for 8,000 years and are now being used across the world.

Victor had brought 8 wines to demonstrate how oaking affects the wine. The first wine was everyone’s favourite – an unoaked Chardonnay from Macon in France had been stirred on its lees to increase richness was light, refreshing and delightful. The comparison was a fairly heavily oaked Australian Chardonnay from McLaren Vale fermented in barrel which showed the affect of oaking very clearly – much heavier and slightly oily - some people loved it, others didn’t. 2 Chenin Blancs, the first unoaked from Anjou, France, was quite light but a little bland, the second, oaked from Citrusdal, South Africa – the oak was much less in your face compared to the Australian but still apparent. Both were good examples of how oaking changes white wines.

Oaking really comes into its own with red wines. The unoaked Pinot Noir from the Pfalz in Germany had reasonable body and was judged very drinkable. In comparison the same variety from Otago, New Zealand, had spent 9 months in second fill (used the year before) barrels was a much darker colour and was heavier and smooth with low acidity. Definitely worth its time in barrel. We finished with 2 Merlot-based blends from France. The first from Bordeaux had not been oaked and was judged to be a bit rough around the edges and too sharp for most people. However the oaked Cru Bourgeois from the Haut-Medoc was a very dark colour, full bodied with tastes of ilquorice and had there been a vote for the best wine of the evening would certainly have won. A classic example of the benefits of oak on red wine.

Visitors are welcome at the Society’s forthcoming meetings: October 21st - Nik Darlington from Pip of the Manor in Seale will present “Old dogs, new tricks: when classics take you by surprise.” For more information on West Surrey Wine Society please visit