Oak and its integration over time?

Hi all so I just posted on my blog the following: Terre Rouge Syrah and a question of oak | sólosyrah It seemed like a perfect “Wine Berserkers” topic (forgive me if it’s been addressed a million times before newhere ) so I want to start a discussion here. Here are the two main questions I brought up: 1.) How much does oak integrate over time? Are there cases where it doesn’t? I’d love to hear from some of you who have tried a lot of older vintages of wines that may have been pretty heavily oaked in their youth. 2.) What do you all think about this idea of a vineyard having the aromatic intensity to “stand up” to new oak. Would you rather see the vineyard expressed without the “makeup” of new oak or do you think the oak adds to complexity over time?

Thanks for your time.

Recently consumed aged Guigal and Voerzio wines recently showed their oak compared to more traditional neighbors in this thread.

I’ve had similar experiences with the top three Rousseau wines. Frankly, to my palate the oak distracts from the wines rather than complimenting them.

Cyrus - not for nothing but you posted to link to your blog? And you look at a 2008 as an example of a wine with some time on it? Come on man, try some older wines, and that doesn’t mean only 9-10 years. And a vineyard doesn’t have aromatic intensity. The question is framed far to simply. Try more wine and then ask again. Cheers!

The answer is…it depends.

Sometimes it integrates, sometimes it doesn’t.

Sometimes I prefer little to no oak influence, other times, I don’t mind some new oak influence.

Hard to make generalizations.

A vote for subtlety.

Big wines with heavy new oak are like a room full of people shouting at each other. In near term, those wines can integrate or at least be somewhat balanced for what they are.

Drinking a lfew bottles of 70’s-80’s Bdx and Cali cabs recently and the oak recedes and becomes part of the floral bouquet generally.

Certain components in wine never change. Oak and acid for instance. Other components rise and fall, like fruit. When a wine’s fruit comes to the forefront, oak will appear to recede but when the fruit fades, the oak will still be there.

1 Like

For me, the question is “Does oak actually integrate?” I’d be interested from reading a reply from someone with a background in organic chemisrty. What actually happens with the oak over time in the bottle? Does it chemically break down and “integrate” over time? Does it just “fade”? Doe other components in the wine come to the forefront rendering the oak less obvious, as Paul suggests?

I’ve had plenty of aged wines and have used the word “integrated” to describe the oak. I’m just wondering if that is chemically correct.

It depends on the wines. There is oak, fruit, tannins and acidity. Except for the acidity, they all fade while the wine also develops tertiary characteristics. They don’t fade at the same rate. depends on the grapes, the winery and the wine itself. Experience can be a guide, but one never really knows for sure.

I like a bit of oak in many wines, but not a lot. Its a subjective thing. Still, I have had wines that tasted like a 2x4 in their youth that were gorgeous with 10 years or more on them.

A few more variables:

  1. American vs. French oak. Old Riojas and some California wines with a lot of American oak can retain that strong coconut note into old age (even 20, 30+ years) sometimes. That’s considered a typical quality of many great old Riojas – a feature, not a fault. French oak on a cabernet or a top Burgundy seems more likely to integrate with time.

  2. Alcohol can bring out oak flavors, so higher alcohol wines can have intense, spicy oak flavors you don’t get in wines with less alcohol. I find those intense, almost phony, cinnamon/cloves flavors can survive for a long time, even after the wine has started to lose fruit. I don’t like that, but it’s a matter of personal taste.

  3. The toasting of the barrels makes a huge different to the oak element.

Oak can lend a dimension of complexity. Or it can tart up a wine, adding caramel and vanilla flavors and masking what’s underneath – hiding faults and virtues.

It’s like garlic – it can add complexity or it can be coarse and dominate everything.

I’m with Brady in finding residual oak a distraction; I don’t consider it a desirable “seasoning” in a mature wine.

John is absolutely right about some Riojas; I had a 1991 Lopez de Heredia Tondonia Gran Reserva in 2012 and it was still too oaky for my tastes.

In my experience with white Burgundies, however, many wines that show a fair amount of r.o. in the early days are pretty much done with it by the time the wines are 9-10 years old. Except Coche.

Oak barrels add to the flavors/aromas in more than just one way:

  • Vanilla/Maple flavors
  • Char from the burnt wood
  • A general spicey “woodiness”

Ive not read a study but my antidotal experience is that vanilla/maple components recede a bit over time but the other two attributes do not. Im not sure exactly what is happening chemically but something is transforming those vanilla/maple notes.

One thing though is that old burgundy that has most of its fruit fallen off can still have a core sweetness and Ive wondered if that is the vanillin from the wood barrels.

1.) How much does oak integrate over time?
Sometimes a little, sometimes a lot, sometimes it continues to stick out worse over time.

1.a) Are there cases where it doesn’t?
The examples are legion, at least short term aging (i.e.: 10 years). Over the past 5 years, I’ve been working my way through a small variety of late 80s and early 90s Cali Cabs. Some are still ridiculoulsy over-oaked. Some are beautiful.

2.) What do you all think about this idea of a vineyard having the aromatic intensity to “stand up” to new oak?
No question. But there’re tons of other factors involving ripeness, tannins, whole clusters, vintage characteristics, etc.

2.b. Would you rather see the vineyard expressed without the “makeup” of new oak or do you think the oak adds to complexity over time?
Very tough question. New oak (and used) can polish/smooth certain wines in a very beneficial manner. I don’t enjoy pronounced or overtly noticeable oak. So the answer is “it depends” with oak either adding complexity or getting in the way.


That was a nicely done and thoughtful blog post you did on Bill’s Syrahs. Wish I could have been there w/ you to try them. Doug’s a great guy…as you now know.

You ask some complicated questions…for which I’ve got no simple/pat answers. I’ve only been tasting wines since the late '60’s, so don’t have a whole lot of
experience w/ older wines.

  1. As others have mentioned, it all sort of depends on how the oak integrates over time. Depends on what?? Beats heck out of me. I’ve had heavily oaked wines where the
    oak subsides into the background w/ age. I’ve had heavily oaked wines that has nothing but oak left when it ages. And I’ve not been able to figure out any rhyme oor reason
    for what it does. Given a heavily-oaked young wine, I’m at a loss as the where the oak is gonna go w/ btl age. Sorry I can’t be of more help.
  2. I do think, unlike others, that aromatic intensity can be an intrinsic property of a vnyd. It probably is a function of the crop-load more than anything, but I can cite some vnyds
    that seem to have, yr in & yr out, aromatic intensity. It’s a reasonably framed question, I think. I think if a wine has great aromatic intensity, it probably can, as Bill claims, take a greater
    hit of new oak, w/o detracting from the wine.

In general, for Syrah (or pretty much any wine), I prefer the oak to not be very intrusive. Low oak can often add something to a wine that’s hard to quantify, but I like it when it’s
not so blatent. That’s the big problem I have w/ many of the up-valley NapaVlly Syrah producers. Many of them are basicly Cabernet producers. They often use the some oak regime
on their Syrah as w/ their Cabernets. They taste like a Syrah made by a Cabernet producer. That’s why I’m not a big fan of Shafer Relentless or Lewis Syrahs.

Another good example is the Alban Viognier. John’s Viognier tends to be hit w/ a pretty heavy load of new/charred/Fr.oak. And it seldom integrates w/ age in my experience.
EhrenJordan’s rendition of John’s Viognier has very little, if any, new oak…which is why (in addition to being picked earlier) it’s one of Calif’s greatest Viogniers.

Some CC Syrah TN’s will hit your in-box soon.


I’m a chemist, and I have no idea what happens chemically to compounds imparted by oak :wink: Certainly the term “integrated” has no scientific meaning, it’s a word that a lot of people use (I think) to describe a character that fades or dissipates. Often used for alcohol as well, which I is chemically not a very realistic description.

In answer to the OP, in my experience wines that are heavy on oak when young always show signs of that oak at any age. Does new oak have a role to play? In some wines, certainly. IMO most Cali Cabs and modern Bordeaux are heavily over-oaked. For my tastes, I can’t see ever using more than 50% new in any wine. For other wines, like Syrah and Nebbiolo, I’m a fan of very modest new oak, if any at all.

The question at hand is hard to answer because there are so many factors involved. On my website there is a lot of information about oak barrels.

Earlier somebody referenced two wineries that use a lot of oak, Guigal and Rousseau. Guigal ages some wines for over three years in new and newish barrels, and twenty years on people are happy campers. Drink the wines young and you feel you might have splinters in your mouth. Rousseau wines usually age beautifully. Jayer used 100% new oak as does DRC, not to mention Ausone, Petrus, Cheval Blanc and many others. Older bottles from these wineries are highly prized to the point that there are 197 pages and counting of posts devoted to those who would imitate them.

For the scientifically inclined I have lots of pdf’s of articles on barrels from our r and d people. E mail me and I will share.

One more comment:
When the wood is properly seasoned the toasting impacts the flavors in the wine differently. There is less char/BBQ/smoked ham.etc in the nose. The tannins are softer. The wine and the oak will integrate faster because the oak itself is more subtle.

Such an interesting question indeed with no direct objective answers.

It’s also interesting to note folks’ comments about oak and on this board, there general desire to drink wines with less apparent new oak. Yet it seems to be that there are plenty of winery ‘darlings’ on this board that are heavily oaked and continue to be so year in and year out. Not a bad thing - just a commentary.

I think what makes the discussion even more challenging is that not all oak is ‘consistent’. Mel handles companies where, year in and year out, you know what you’re going to get for your money, and the barrels do have a sense of consistency. When I worked for another winery, though, we would purchase from other coopers and in a batch of, say, 12 barrels, there would be little ‘familial resemblance’ among them. Makes things a bit more challenging from a winemaking standpoint.

Combine this with the fact that there still remains much confusion, even on this board what aromas are truly oak derived versus ‘grape’ derived, and an easy answer cannot be made . . .


Thanks Mel, your site is very informative.

Thanks for your comments, Mel. I was hoping you chime in here and set us all straight.

I believe this (the seasoning) is one of the big contributions that PaulDraper has made to the industry for Am.oak. Before then, I think most of
the Am.oak barrels were destined for the bourbon industry and kiln dried. I believe Paul requested an Am.barrel builder (Canton?) to cooper him some
Am.oak barrels built to French techniques, with seasoning the wood out-doors, rather than in a kiln. And the rest is history, for a good outcome
for MonteBello. Correct me if I got my facts wrong.

All good points, Larry.

This is a topic I’d certainly like to learn more about. Quite often I’ve found that young wines from producers such as Littorai, Ridge, Windy Oaks, and others can seem heavily-oaked to me, but given 5-6 years of age that oak usually integrates very well. Years ago I’d just about given up on Qupe Marsanne since the new bottlings I’d tasted at the winery came across to me as very oaky, but I learned that their oak character (at least what I perceive as overt oak character) totally disappears over time and they age beautifully. But as many here have pointed out, sometimes oak can become even more pronounced over time as the fruit fades. Many big oaky Cabs never lose that upfront oak character.

I also don’t know the reason why Pinot Noir seems to “absorb” new oak so much better than most other varieties. I’ve often been very surprised at the high percentage of new oak in some Pinots since it can be so well-integrated in the wine even when very young.