We’ve discussed how seasoning of oak affects tannins and the flavors of oak barrels, but that’s only part of the story. The biggest impact on the flavor of the wine can come from the actual manufacture of the barrels. In order to be able to bend the oak staves into a barrel shape, the insides of the staves are heating over a fire. This heat chars the wood and creates complex chemical reactions.

One reaction is akin to the Maillard reaction that causes the browning of meats and vegetables. This reaction creates compounds that add sweetness, as well as flavor, to a wine.  Barrels can be lightly toasted or heavily charred during the manufacturing process, and each increase in the level of toastiness translates into a more assertive flavor in the finished wines.

There has been a lot of discussion over the past two decades regarding the uses of oak, and the specific toast levels ideal for specific wines. This point of contention has been one of the pivotal issues that have separated the traditionalist school of thought from the evolving Modernist camp. What has become apparent, and it has taken two decades simply because these wines generally need significant aging to tame the tannins and toast imparted by these heavily toasted new barrels, is that even after two decades many wines have been, and remain, dreadfully over oaked.

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