Buzz: Hey Marnie, my brother-in-law brought an Italian wine over last night. Boy did it taste funny. I thought they were supposed to be the vino experts. What gives?
Marnie: I doubt there was anything wrong with the wine, Buzz. But for people like you, who usually drink California wine, it can definitely be a change of pace to switch to Italy.
Buzz: I can understand that. When I was in college, Italian women were the only ones I dated. They were wonderful!
Marnie: Well, you should think that way about their wine too. While each individual wine varies, most Italian reds are lighter, drier and earthier than American wines, which tend to be heavier and fruitier. It's also common for affordable Italian reds to skip the oak-treatment that most California wines receive. The absence of barrel-spice flavor can be disorienting for folks who normally drink more modern reds.
Buzz: Wait, they're skipping barrel spice? For what? Something new from Starbucks?
Marnie: It's not all that different, actually. Vintners have known for centuries that red wines taste better when they spend some time maturing in oak barrels, instead of being bottled in the fermentation tanks. Oak aging improves reds in two main ways. Since wood is porous, the wine inside can breathe, allowing evaporation to concentrate the wine and enriching wine's texture through slow oxidation.
Buzz: Well, this is same-old, same-old. Age it in the old oak barrels and it's better than aging it in the big metal tank. Already knew that.
Marnie: Yes, but if brand new barrels are used, there is another effect that has a major impact on flavor: Newly toasted barrels impart their toasty, nutty flavor compounds to the wine, adding "barrel-spice" flavors like cognac or bourbon to the wine.
Buzz: Whoa! Now you're talking about bourbon!
Marnie: This is what we mean when we say a wine is "oaked" or "oaky" — that it features the taste of new oak barrels. But the oaky taste of new barrels doesn't last — it fades away by the third or fourth year a barrel is used. Historically, only the best wines tasted like barrels, because winemakers would splurge on new barrels for them, while the more affordable wines would be aged in older barrels that had already lost all their oaky flavor. This tradition is still practiced in many European regions, like Italy, where the wines under $20 or so, often taste completely "unoaked."
Buzz: I already know that wine made with new barrels are expensive. But how do cheap American wines get their oaky taste?
Marnie: They have alternative oak treatments for that — like extracts or oak chips. They don't concentrate the wine or enrich texture, but they do add oodles of barrel-spice if you prefer that to being unoaked.