Why oak? At first glance it would seem unlikely that the wood from a tree and the fruit of the vine would have such a longstanding relationship. While both oak barrels and wine are ultimately made from plants, they are certainly cultivated, harvested, developed and utilized very differently. Yet without oak, the wide world of wine would be very, very different.
Wood was first used widely with wine simply as an open bucket for carrying and temporary storage. Eventually these wood vessels were covered with more wood, and slowly took the form of barrels — and the techniques of making barrels slowly became more refined and standardized.
Overtime, folks also began to realize that oak was the best wood for manipulating into barrels and that oak had uniquely beneficial qualities for wine. Oak soon became a central part of the winemaker’s craft. While a few famous traditional wine producing areas, like France’s Chablis region, utilize little or no oak, most use oak extensively.
Oak can transform wine, adding depth, flavors and complexity. Oak does this interactively; due to its complex chemical compounds, each of which contribute its own flavor or textural note to both red and white wines. Some of the more familiar additive notes that oak can impart include vanilla flavors, sweet and toasty aromas, tannins, notes of tea and tobacco, and an overall structural complexity.
Oak barrels are semi-permeable, so they also concentrate flavors by introducing controlled evaporation and oxidation to the wine, allowing a small amount of oxygen to enter through the staves. This softens and matures the flavor profile. There are hundreds of species of oak, though the wine world mostly uses American white oak, French oak and Eastern European oak. American oak characteristically adds some vanilla and its oakiness is more obvious while the European varieties have a more subtle influence.
The manufacturing process of making barrels — such as the inside toasting or firing of the barrels — typically varies depending on the species of oak and the desired effect it is to have upon the wine, for each method and variable aspect of manufacture can impart something different to the maturing wine. Since barrels are handmade, they are invariably expensive. So it is not uncommon for winemakers producing “volume” or cheap wines to use alternative methods to impart some of that oak aspect to their wines. So, for example, some wines are “oaked” by adding wood chips to the wine that is otherwise resting in non-reactive stainless steel or concrete containers. Even these “cheating” methods, however, require some discerning judgment. Indeed, deciding how to proceed and just how much and what sort of oak influence to impart, depends entirely upon a winemaker’s skill and experience.
Furthermore, not all wines benefit from oak, especially the more delicate grape varietals and many white wines whose flavors would be adversely affected by the wood. For example, the injudicious use of oak with Chardonnay resulted in many bottles tasting like wood pencils rather than wine. As a consequence, a number of winemakers are releasing more “unoaked” Chardonnay that expresses more clearly the underlying nature of the varietal. A kosher example is the Dalton Unoaked Chardonnay 2012 that shows lively fruit flavors and aromas including peach, grapefruit, mango and apricots, along with good balance and a nice lengthy finish.
Spirits-wise, we thought we’d drift from the Scottish island of Islay further inland once again to the Speyside region of the Highlands, the veritable heart of the Scotch whisky industry. Our attention this go around is the Balvenie Distillery, a distillery whose whiskies seem to be a constant among many of our friends and fellow congregants.
One of only a handful of Scottish family-owned and -operated Scotch whisky brands, the Balvenie is one of the best known Scotch distilleries in the U.S., selling more than 70,000 cases in 2012. Owned and operated by William Grant & Sons, Balvenie was built by William Grant in 1892, right next door to the Grant family’s more famous Glenfiddich Distillery, which was built in 1886 and ranks No. 3 in sales in the U.S. (behind The Glenlivet and The Macallan, respectively).
Generally considered by whisky geeks to have the qualitative edge over Glenfiddich, Balvenie is capable of producing more than 5.5 million liters of spirit a year and unusually still has both its own cooperage, where the barrels are made and mended, and its own malting floor, where a portion of its malted barley is prepared for production (the rest is brought in pre-malted according to specifications). Balvenie also has a 1,000-acre family farm (“Balvenie Mains”) that accounts for around 10 percent of its barley needs. Being one of the most traditionally made whiskies in Scotland, the Balvenie Distillery also makes for one of the best distillery tours in the Speyside region.
They currently like to refer to themselves as “the handcrafted single malt” and while such a designation is obviously both a little overblown and relatively meaningless, as large-scale distilleries go, their marketing claims are stronger than many. As Andrew Weir, the Balvenie’s senior brand manager, puts it: “Sure, the term ‘handcrafted’ is somewhat overused these days, but Balvenie can actually demonstrate it — Balvenie still does floor malting, has its own cooperage and coppersmith and has David Stewart, our malt master, who’s been there 50 years.”
For our part, we don’t really care what the marketing angle is, provided the whisky is good. Thankfully, Balvenie continues to deliver. So here are a few great Balvenie whiskies to consider:
Balvenie 12-year-old Doublewood Single Malt Scotch Whisky (40 percent abv; $49.99): this dependable old favorite is sweet and nutty, with aromas and flavors of honey, malt, gentle spice notes, vanilla, toffee, bananas, candied peanuts, walnuts, a whisper of peat in the background, ending in a lovely dry, spicy, warming finish.
Balvenie “Caribbean Cask” 14-year-old Single Malt Scotch Whisky (43 percent abv; $65.99): Finished in barrels that previously held West Indians rums, this is a complex, balanced, sweet and malty whisky, exhibiting lovely aromas and flavors of honey, vanilla, and toffee with fruity notes of apple, tangerine and guava, all peppered with a little spice, and followed by an interesting, gripping, lingering finish.
The Balvenie Single Barrel, 15 years old (47.8 percent abv; $79.99): This is a single cask, single malt — meaning the distillery essentially just empties the barrel into (around 350) bottles. This enjoyable ex-bourbon cask-aged expression offers delicate honeyed malt sweetness and a melange of dried fruits on the nose, followed by bold and arresting flavors of malt, ripe fruit, honey, vanilla, maple syrup, citrus fruits (oranges, mandarins, nectarines), lemon rind, dried apricot, pralines, a hint of something more tropical (like pineapple), coconut, pepper, some slight clove, and subtle notes of star anise. Not overly deep or complex, but solid and delicious. L’Chaim!