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Oak: Finding a Happy Medium

A noted wine writer once commented that wineries should provide a simile of a tea bag filled with oak chips with each bottle of wine they sell so the consumer can adjust the oak aromas and flavors to their taste. Pinot Noir loves expensive French oak, since it compliments its flavors and aromatics, adding more complexity and interest, not to mention providing tannins, adding texture and influencing the finished color of the wine. However, drinkers vary widely in their personal taste for oak, with some preferring no oak at all in their Pinot Noir. Many drinkers say they like “just the right amount of oak flavor,” mirroring the proverbial scenario in Goldilocks and the Three Bears (not too hot nor too cold, but just right).

It is surprising to think of all the aromas and flavors that oak barrels can impart to Pinot Noir. I have compiled a list for reference:

Earthy: ash, musty, leather, mushroom, shoe box

Herbaceous: green wood, weedy, dill, bay leaf, sage, savory, spearmint, mint, Asian 5-spice, black and white pepper, Moroccan spices, potpourri, mowed hay, menthol, wintergreen, grass, tobacco, dried flowers, leaf, pharmaceutical

Woody: cedar, pine, pine pitch, pine needles, sandalwood, redwood, tree bark, sawdust, pencil shavings, cigar box, old box, bramble, sap, tar, resin, oak

Spicy: clove, nutmeg, dill, cardamom, licorice, cinnamon, coconut, vanilla, toasted vanilla bean

Sweet: brown sugar, burnt sugar, bourbon, cotton candy, chocolate, cocoa, maple syrup, butterscotch, hot fudge, caramel, molasses, honey toffee, soy sauce, Coca-Cola, Dr. Pepper, cherry cola, Kahlua

Creamy: vanilla, cream soda, marshmallow, lactic, butter

Yeasty: popcorn, baked bread, bread stick, brioche, cookie dough

Nutty: hazelnut, marzipan, walnut, almond, roasted nuts, furfural, peanut butter, coconut

Roasted: graham cracker, toasted bread, coffee, espresso, mocha, tea, rose hips tea, cereal

Smoky: barbecue, grilled meats, smoked meats, game, sauvage, bacon, sweet smoke, creosote, iodine, burnt sugar, char, toast, créme brûlée

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