The Rise, Fall & Plateau of the Oak Barrel

We can’t express how excited we were when we saw the headline “Is Oak Over?” on VinePair the other week. We immediately shouted “Yeah, kinda!” in our minds. It isn’t that we’re anti-oak, it’s just that we know there are so many delicious wines out there that have never seen an oak barrel or oak stave or oak chip in their lives. So why has oak dominated the wine game for so long and why are more and more wine enthusiasts and journalists celebrating unoaked, alternative or stainless steel aged wines?

First of all, because oaked wines were seen as the end-all, be-all of sophistication, the market got carried away. In the 90’s and early-aughts, wine critics (especially in America) sang the praises of old oak and new oak alike, and thus new oak became a core component of popular reds at the time. Nowadays, sommeliers hate those new-oak wines, and trendy winemakers avoid new oak barrels like the plague. The reason is multi-fold, but at its simplest: new oak just wasn’t cutting it flavor wise and is expensive to boot.

As with any trend, something grew so much in popularity that it then became overdone and ‘un-hip.’ Oak became too mainstream. Add in the financial and environmental cost of oak barrels (new or old) and a new trend arrives: unoaked wine, wine aged in stainless steel, terracotta, concrete, ceramic and so on.

So we definitely over-oaked, but is oak over? “Oak can never truly be over.” VinePair ultimately says in response to the question posed in their headline. “We simply need to be smarter about how we use, think, and talk about it.”

We’re inclined to agree. We may manufacture stainless steel wine barrels at Skolnik, but we understand the importance of oak in the winemaking process and history. But we have to remember that oak is a finite resource, and an expensive one. Winemakers shouldn’t just use oak barrels because they think they are ‘supposed’ to, or because it is ‘traditional’. They should use oak (barrels or alternatives) with intention – because their vision for the wine they are creating demands the flavors that only oak can impart.

If there is no specific need for oak in your winemaking process, consider the alternatives. Consider the more financially and environmentally sound options such as stainless steel.

And check out the full article in VinePair, it really is a great analysis of how and why oak barrels rose to their status in winemaking.