Has the economic slowdown killed the oak monster?

Winemakers across three continents and various importers have echoed a similar refrain to me of late: the economic slowdown of the past few years has led to less new oak. New 225-liter barrels (“barriques”) can cost $1,300 a pop–or about $4 per bottle of wine if only used once. Some producers say they hear talk from producers dialing back the oak about getting more natural. But at root, the decision is often economic. (Just wait until they learn about the waning influence of critics who championed such styles, most notable in Spain.)

Whatever the reason, nine times out of ten, it’s a good thing. Instead of tasting expensive oak, we can taste the grape and the terroir. Oh, and nice not to see those obnoxiously heavy bottles much any more too. Of course, there are regions where adding $4 in oak costs or $2 for bottles doesn’t really matter since the finished wine prices are so high. But those are the exception, not the rule.

What do you see in terms of new oak in your corner of the wine world?

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17 Responses to “Has the economic slowdown killed the oak monster?”

  1. Wine Business Monthly will publish its 2012 Barrel Survey in December – in the survey, half of the respondents said they will be purchasing more barrels in 2012 versus 2011. This represents an increase in optimism about future sales of barrel-aged wines, although we seem to be having a “normal” harvest after a string of light years. A lot of the wineries that expect to buy fewer barrels in 2012 than they did in 2011 cited a smaller than expected harvest in 2011 as the reason. It’s also true that over the past few years, some wineries have been using their barrels longer.

  2. We buy most of our wine from wineries in the Central Coast area (mostly Paso Robles) and the Sierra Foothills (mostly Calaveras and Amadore counties) since they are close to our cabin near Yosemite. Over time we have seen the introduction of more varietals that will do well in those climates. Recently we have seen less use of oak and much more talk of terroir, and very recently the use of lighter weight bottles (along with explanations from the staff as to why). You discussed in an earlier article the costs required to produce wine for smaller producers, so maybe these are economic measures to help reduce the cost to the consumer. Whatever the reasons, it’s a good thing and we are ready for less of the “new world” and more of the “old.”

  3. The producers in British Columbia have dialed their oak use way back. Less new oak and for shorter time periods. Much for the better.

  4. Personally, I’m okay with less oak and more of the taste of the grape and the terroir. And hopefully this means lower costs (or at least not rising costs) to the end users. Cheers!

    — Kristy @ Wine Logic

  5. As long as they reverse the trend of nakked Chardonnay, its so boring without a touch of oak / malo

  6. Before the economic slowdown/slump/depression
    there was already a trend for wines with less oak. Many consumers were already looking for wines that were not masked with oak or oak-chipped. That stated, along with that many people are eating lighter and want wines to match. Add to this mix the cost of Oak itself and a reasonable person can see that less oak is good if it becomes too expensive or too offensive.

  7. Not sure the concept of less oak = more “terroir” is real. Oak adds complexity and depth and when used correctly can enhance terroir. More new oak is certainly a detriment at times, but no more than more alcohol, more pH, more sugar, more VA, etc.

    Overall I find that most sommeliers and wine buyers are preferring more lightly Oaked wines. That said there are still plenty of incredible wines with a judicious oak treatment.

  8. I think the day of the oak-bomb wine is taking a well deserved dirt (terroir?) nap. In the Chicago market, you can’t give expensive Napa Cabs and Chards away, and the trend is only gaining steam.

    The rule of thumb among individual consumers is that once they transitioned against Napa’s hedonistic fruitbombs towards classically styled old world wines (not disputing that plenty of old world producers jumped on the RMP bandwagon) they rarely came back. What will be most interesting to see is that, as entire metropolitan markets, largely transition away from California wine at the high end, if there will be any resurgence or comeback possible.

    In my honest opinion, not unless California can drastically change their stylistic reputation across the board.

  9. I have a feeling that less expensive types of oak barrels and the use of oak chips have replaced expensive high quality French barriques. I get a headache just thinking about it …

  10. If you do good not knowing why, you won’t do it for long

  11. More measured use of Oak is a great trend, Burgundy has always used some oak but always in a more measured manner than say California or Australia. Dependence on oak will continue to diminish as wine consumers continue to explore and learn. The easiest nuance to notice in wine is the oak and for less experienced wine consumers this nuance can be a false indicator of quality.

    Another false indicator of quality is the heavy bottle which is a trend that always pissed me off as a sommelier and wine director. Trying pouring some of those beasts to a party of 20 or more and then think about how they effect the storage in a tight urban restaurant cellar. The reason for big bottles???? Purely marketing, what a waste of energy and money that could and should be spent on a better product in the bottle.

  12. Cyril – Thanks for that information from your upcoming issue! Interesting that it is ticking higher y-o-y. How does your survey compare to 2007 or 2008?

  13. New Oak seemed to be the preference for Rhone varietals in Paso on my recent trip.

  14. I attended a “Zinfandel Summit” at Justin Winery (Paso Robles) last spring and while there sat in on a panel discussion consisting of winemakers from five or six wineries (all from a group called the Far Out Wineries since they are on the far west side of the Paso Robles area). The topic was the use of oak. One winemaker stated he tried never to use oak and another stated he usually used it to some degree. All discussed the use of oak to enhance the varietals that did well in the area (Rhone and Spanish varietals mostly), talking about how oak can be used to accentuate certain characteristics. None talked about using it to meet a certain public expectation or to meet a perceived public demand. It was interesting to hear the different perspectives of how to use (or not use) oak in the winemaking process, without worrying too much about the dollar.

  15. […] across the world are cutting back on the use of new oak. According to Dr. Vino, the motivation is […]

  16. Here in the Willamette Valley, there are still wineries that will sell off their barrels after two uses. Without naming names, those are the wineries that sell wine for $50 a bottle, use all the fancy equipment, and aren’t worried about money.

    Slightly off topic – there is a company out here called “Rewine Barrels” that takes old barrels and re-toasts them like new, for about a quarter of the price of new french oak. It’s also the only barrel cleaning method that is proven to kill brett. Really interesting stuff

  17. […] Has the economic slowdown killed the oak monster? […]


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