There are many ways a label can tell customers that the wine in the bottle has been influenced by oak: the mention of barrel, barrique or cask, the French élevé en chêne (raised in oak) or simply the word oaked or some similar reference. It can also be implied by the use of spicy or smoky, although neither of those is definitive. But some words I saw on a red Bordeaux label recently gave a whole new meaning to oak ageing and its purpose: rather than using ‘élevé’, this producer said that his wine was ‘éduqué en fûts de chêne’ (literally, educated or brought up in oak barrels).
By doing this, he is comparing the ageing of his wine to the bringing up of his children. Is that a reasonable comparison? I’d say yes. I often tell groups that wine is a living thing; good wines, especially, go through a distinct youthful stage, followed sometimes by difficult teenage years, then a comfortable middle age, when the wine is at its peak, before reaching old age and, if you keep it too long, extreme old age.
So, the upbringing analogy is a good one. The producer has taken his newly made wine, full of bright young fruit and probably quite firm tannins, and put it into oak barrels. What happens in those barrels is interesting: oak is slightly porous – not porous enough for the wine to leak out, but porous enough for tiny amounts of air to get in. The air reacts with the wine, softening the tannins and making the wine more rounded and harmonious. In addition, if the barrels are new (or reasonably new), they might also impart an oaky or smoky flavour to the wine, changing it further.
In this way, the raw young wine is transformed into a rounded, characterful bottle ready to take its place at table. Just like turning a brash infant into a mature adult. So, a wine, like a person can, indeed, be ‘éduqué’.