Oak & Tannin

– David Ramey, May 2013

Most wine drinkers attribute too much tannic influence to oak.  In terms of oak lactones, vanilla and other aromatic components, oak is clearly evident when it’s overused. 

Tannin is an essential component of wine, and oak plays a part in it, but most wine drinkers attribute too much tannic influence to oak. Oak’s influences on the aromas and flavors of a wine – the oak lactones, vanilla and other aromatic components – are clearly evident when oak is overused. Meaning what? When they are clearly evident oak has been overused? or when oak is overused they clearly reflect that? they are too pronounced when oak is overused? In terms of tannin added to the palate feel or texture of the wine, that’s a much more subtle contribution, and one which would be quite muted in third or fourth use barrels. 

The larger issue is tannin maturity at harvest. When grapes aren’t fully mature at harvest, they won’t have attained what Jean-Claude Berrouet of Moueix used to call “les tannins mûrs, les tannins souples.” As Michel Rolland once said to me, “If you have mature tannins, then you have a choice: you can make a vin de garde, or a vin de consommation.  On the other hand, if you have immature, green, hard tannins, then you don’t have a choice—you can only make a vin de consommation.” 

Tannin maturity at harvest is the primary; the second is extraction. If a winemaker thoroughly extracts unripe grapes, with green tannins, then they’d get the sort of backwards wine that is super-tight and rather tannic even after it has been twice-decanted.  

As a side effect, acid and tannin are contrapuntal in red wine—antagonistic. Higher acid levels exaggerate the tannic qualities of a wine.