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Wednesday 5 October 2011

Weekly Wine: What the Oak? What Wood Adds to Wine

When you talk about an oaky wine, most people either look at you blankly because they think you're barmy (and possibly a bit of a snobby twit), or they make a vommy face because they think you mean it'll taste like wood.

The truth is, oak-aged wines are literally everywhere, and even if you think you don't like them you're probably drinking them without even knowing it.
Ageing a wine in oak can impart oodles of different characteristics. It's not just flavours - oak also gives a wine more tannins (that's the grippy, puckery feeling of a wine on your gums. Strong tea has good tannins too, and wine needs them to age gracefully.)
It depends on:
* Whether American or French oak is used - American oak tends to give stuff like vanilla and coconut, whereas French oak gives more diverse flavours and stronger tannins.
* How long the wine is aged for - longer periods give more pronounced characteristics, so you can get wines with more delicate, subtle character from oak if you don't like it to be too overpowering.
* The size and age of the oak barrels used - the smaller and newer the barrels, the bigger the effects.

Now that's the sciencey bit out of the way, let's get down to the flavours. Oak ageing does obviously give a woody, cedary quality, but not in all cases. It can also give smoky character, plus medicinal, spicy, toasty or tobacco-like smells and flavours, as well as the vanilla and coconut I've already mentioned. Just give the glass a good swirl and have a sniff to see what you can find.

In white wines, it can also give nutty, savoury flavours. They can even smell a bit like Frazzles, sometimes, which isn't always as repulsive as it sounds - especially if you serve it with some kind of creamy bacon dish.

This leads me on nicely to my main point: I think oak characteristics in wine make totally ace food pairings. Here's a couple of ideas to get you started if you want to explore the world of oak-aged wines:

Muga Rioja Blanco with Spanish dishes like tapas or Paella
Majestic sell this beauty for £10.99 and it's one of my fave Spanish whites. The toasty, spicy elements to this wine make it great with spicy, flavoursome Spanish dishes as well.

Macon-Vergisson by Joseph Burrier with creamy chicken and bacon dishes
White Burgundy can be pricey at the best of times, so finding this for under a tenner was a very good day for me. It's only part oak-aged too so it won't be too creamy or nutty, but drink a glass with chicken in a creamy sauce and you'll realise how divinely the two blend together. It's £9.95 from The Wine Society.

Boekenhoutskloof Syrah with Beef Stroganoff or Chilli Con Carne
I love this producer, and this wine has real spice and depth from its time in oak (as well as from the spicy Syrah grape). It's great with dishes with a little paprika, and at £5.69 from Waitrose it's also a bit of a cheeky bargain.

Tesco Finest Argentinian Malbec (£6.49) with chargrilled meats
This wine is full, robust and spicy. The chunky tannins make it the perfect partner for smoky meats whether they're straight off the top of the barbecue or the grill pan.

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