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The importance of being oak


Cellar Master

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IT WAS not my intention to write on oak this month. However, I received a few emails regarding my article on “Misleading notes that accompany wine offers”. All were from England and I suspect they were from members of The Times Wine Club or the staff.

They said that I did not take into account the different factors that can affect wine. All three mentioned the fact that I ignored the oak factor, which in itself is suspicious. I found it strange that they should even mention it, as oak is not one of the six factors. For those who are interested, the six factors are soil, grape, climate, viticulture, vinification and luck.

For centuries, coopering was thought to be French but, in fact, more than 2,000 years ago the Celts taught the Romans how to use casks to age wine.


Many people attach a lot of importance to oak but how many know the actual process of making oak casks? The modern cask starts its life when oak staves are formed in a rosette pattern. Hoops are put around the bottom half of the cask and it is then toasted over a fire, fuelled by a similar wood used to make the cask. To keep the fire going, oak chippings are dropped into the fire through the open end of the cask. The charred barrel interior imparts unique flavours into the wine, and the power of the fire also helps to shape the casks.

The flavours that the wine picks up from the oak vary. Vanilla, bread, caramel, toast, butterscotch and chocolate are the most commonly spoken about. It depends on how much the cooper toasts the cask and that will depend on which wine is going into it. So it follows that we can get different smells and flavours from wines. Wine drinking would be very boring if all wines tasted the same.

Be careful though who you drink with. Smells are very suggestive and if two or three in a group say they get a vanilla smell with underlying hints of butterscotch, then you might try to find them and even convince yourself that such smells are there. It is a kind of brainwashing which you have to ignore.

If you read notes that come with wine offers, there is no guarantee that when you get the wine that it will bear any resemblance to anything you might have read, particularly if the leaflets contradicted each other. It’s your nose and your taste buds so find your own smells and tastes and don’t be overawed by some wine buff or snob. When I was training to be a cellar master, I had to work with a cooper as part of my course although I never actually made a cask. I learned a lot about the coopering trade and the Limousin forest in France. It was also interesting to watch a master cooper toasting and shaping the cask, each having its own period of time over the fire.

So, while oak is on every wine drinker’s mind, you should remember that not all casks will give the same tastes. The notes from the The Times Wine Club would stretch anybody’s imagination to the limit. I can understand someone smelling oranges, while someone else might say curacao. But to confuse mint with eucalyptus from the same bottle is stretching the powers of a person’s sense of smell and taste buds to new heights.


The latest scare from the world science is that you could get bowel cancer from drinking one glass of wine (one unit) per day. Professor Tim Key, of the Cancer Research unit at Oxford University, implies this could happen. Science Reporter Fiona MacRae wrote on the subject, claiming that a large glass of wine (two units), or a pint of beer could raise the risk of developing the disease.

Yet, according to the NHS in England, a can of Special Brew (less than a pint), contains four units of alcohol. Julie Wheldon, Science Reporter, claimed that two glasses of wine a day (no units of alcohol mentioned) can reduce blood pressure, and Old World wines are better for the heart.

In Swindon, a doctor in a hospital insisted that patients drink a glass of wine a day. Who do you believe and whose advice do you take? Is it any wonder that people get confused as to how much they should drink? And as long as these doctors, professors, science reporters and the NHS continue to compare alcohol with wine, the confusion will remain.

Fiona MacRae’s article said that 35,000 are diagnosed with bowel cancer in the UK each year. Are they all ‘winos’ or even wine drinkers? If there are teetotallers included in that figure, I’m sure Fiona wouldn’t mention them. It would blow their argument straight out of the water.

Let me quote Professor Georges Portmann, a famous person in the world of wine. “Wine is a product of the fermentation of the juice of fresh grapes and is consequently a product of quality, a healthy drink and, according to my idea, the prohibitionists have been wrong in assimilating it to alcohol. They have thus caused a confusion in the mind of consumers and have kept them away from the aliment used since very remote antiquity”.