Oak was probably originally used in winemaking for practical purposes. They had to put the wine someplace and oak had some terrific advantages over holes in the ground and burlap sacks. It was abundantly available (no doubt the tradition started in France), less breakable than amphoras, and, at least back then, was inexpensive. It's also relatively easy to work with, very re-suable, and imparts some pretty desirable characteristics.
Oak's influence began to edge in to the center stage of wine styles in recent decades, sharing the limelight with fruit and terrior, with the trend hitting different regions at different times and with mixed results. The vogue, contagious as vogues inherently are, appears to persist in its most aggressive form in some winemaking corners like lingering colds. One thing is for sure, with all the currently available and more cost-effective alternatives, the continued use of oak - especially new
oak - is less about necessity than intention. And whatever the intention, the manifestation can be disastrous - and on a massive scale.
Like cologne, a little goes a long way.
Just as it is with people, oak's greatest strength in its extreme is also its greatest weakness. And, so, its application - American and Slovenian just as much as French - has become for some a blunt instrument rather than a whisper, complement, or structural bolster.
To wit, a string of recent tastings has left something of an astringent stripping agent on my teeth - sort of a semi-permanent paneled library in my mouth. Tasting through a handful of expensive Napa Valley reds (Napa loves French oak), Riojas, and Ribera del Dueros (Spain loves American oak), the wines categorically suffered from such over-application, it's as though they were being punished for grave misdeeds. Wines treated with this kind of clumsy heavy-handedness are bludgeoned into an unflattering version of themselves. Worse still, obscured by this masking, it's hard for the drinker to sense what actually came off the vine - which is often beautiful. And, besides, oak as a prominent flavor just doesn't taste good.
At the other end of the spectrum, traditionalists are rubbing elbows with contemporary stylistic winemaking hipsters who eschew the use of non-neutral anything in the vinification process. For the old guard, this is just maintenance of the status quo. Their old and long-neutral oak barrels don't leak, so why should they replace them? And neutrality allows wine to channel its place and variety without noise or other complications. The vast majority of the old world operates under this MO, as do a few US producers (Tablas Creek comes to mind).
For the new guard who embrace a minimalist, less-is-more philosophy, expensive oak barrels are as uncool as wearing a suit to work. All sorts of alternative vessels are being played with, from ceramic egg-shaped things to amphora to concrete. And there's the now well-under-way and popular "naked" movement.
To bring this diatribe into balance, it's worth being plain about my own preferences: oak is not the enemy. When used in appropriate doses it can springboard a good wine into something greater and longer-lived. Its tannic properties can offer a structural framework for fruit that might otherwise be flabby or unfocused. Its toast influence can induce a becoming creamy vanilla streak that offsets and flatters concentrated flavors and lend some exciting grip, too. In those cases, I'm a huge fan.
But one is left scratching one's head at the hammer-happy carpentry approach to wines which would otherwise breathe and be themselves - for the better. That is both a tragedy and a learning opportunity for winemaker and consumer alike.
Happy exploring - and keep that toothbrush close by!