I'm oaky, you're oaky
Would wine be wood if it could?
Uncorked by Thor Iverson
Digging through some old columns recently, I came to the realization that it's
a rare "Uncorked" when I don't mention either
terroir or oak. The former
I've already droned on about
(fear not; history suggests it'll
turn up again), but I'm nothing if not a pedant, so now it's time to rant about
I'll start off this rant by admitting that I like oak. But the key, as always,
I suspect that if many modern-day wines were allowed to
evaporate, the residue would resemble a sapling (or, in the case of older
wines, an antique desk).
for a rundown of wine tastings, dinners, and events.
Why is there oak in wine to begin with? A long time ago, winemakers realized
that aging their wines in oak barrels worked some sort of magic on the juice.
It was soon discovered that the alternatives -- concrete(!), ceramic, and now
stainless steel -- don't do something that oak does: breathe. This slow,
measured oxidation of wine affects the way it develops and matures in very
But the effects of oak don't end there. Along with air, the taste of the
barrel also leaches into the wine. This can be controlled by modifying the
amount of "toast" (or "char" -- barrel-makers will literally burn the inside of
the barrel, which limits the transfer of oxygen and changes the flavor flowing
from the wood to the wine). It also diminishes over time; take a tour of many
European winemakers' cellars, and you'll see an awful lot of barrels from the
18th and 19th centuries that impart no more flavor than stainless steel. And
the smaller the barrel, the more wine is exposed to wood.
As I've noted before,
winemakers often carry a good idea too far. Oak barrels
have multiplied in cellars (asexually, we hope) until nearly every wine from
some producers spends some time in 100 percent new oak. (The increasingly
common phrase "200 percent new oak" means that wine was taken out of one
set of barrels and transferred to a second, fresh set.) Winemakers also use
specially designed square barrels, oak chips, barrels with extra oak staves in
the middle, and even "liquid oak essence," all in an attempt to add more oak
flavor to wine.
But oak is a very strong flavor, one that can easily dominate all but the
fiercest grape juice. Big, bold red wines can often "soak up" oak and still
taste like wine, but less-assertive reds and many whites simply collapse under
the woody assault. Some winemakers will use identical oaking techniques for
chardonnay (a big, fruity, "fat"-tasting grape) and sauvignon blanc (a more
angular, subtle, "thin" grape), which results in an oaky chardonnay and an
undrinkable bottle of oak juice labeled sauvignon blanc.
Winemakers will also claim that barrel-aging adds "complexity" to wine. This
is nonsense: oak doesn't add complexity, it adds oak. Complexity is
derived from the interplay of all of a wine's components --
structure -- of which oak is but one. Judiciously used oak can turn the
right juice into a compelling expression of the winemaker's art, but all too
often it obscures whatever character a wine might have had.
So what does oak taste like? Descriptors like toast, vanilla, butterscotch,
and spice are common; when these flavors dominate, or take on a slightly bitter
taste on the finish, there's a good chance the wine is overoaked. This
bitterness can also indicate the use of oak chips or liquid oak, especially in
inexpensive wines (oak is expensive, and the chance that a $10 chardonnay is
extensively aged in high-quality French oak is . . . well, let's say
The problem -- if you want to call it a problem -- is that people like the
taste of oak. Early New World winemakers, unable to afford expensive French
oak, turned to strongly flavored American and Slovenian oak barrels. By the
time they could afford the less-intrusive French stuff, the New World palate
was accustomed to strong oak flavors in wine. Of course, this made Old World
wines taste "thin" to the wealthy New World market, so many French and Italian
winemakers capitulated and started burying their wines in oak (often
with disastrous consequences: the big, assertive flavors of American and
Australian wine can handle a lot more oak). If you ever see one of the new
"unwooded" Australian chardonnays, try serving it to a few casual wine drinkers
alongside a regular, heavily oaked Aussie chard. Most non-wine geeks won't be
able to identify (or like) the taste of the pure grape, because they're so used
to chardonnay with a large dollop of wood.
If you're a fan of oak, then you're in luck; California, Australia, South
Africa, Chile, much of Spain, southern France, and Tuscany are your playground.
There are plenty of lightly wooded wines from these areas, but a heavy use of
oak is the norm. On the other hand, oak-phobes (like me) can take refuge in
New Zealand, the Loire Valley, and (strangely enough)
where oak is usually either nonexistent or more judiciously employed.
If you're unsure, the easiest way to find out is to do some side-by-side taste
tests. American winemakers tend to oak their reserve cuvées a lot more
than their regular cuvées (and
single-vineyard wines somewhere in
between). So, for instance, try the Chateau Ste. Michelle
Chardonnay ($14), followed by the
single-vineyard versions -- Indian
Wells ($24), Cold Creek ($26), Canoe Ridge ($28), etc. -- and
then the Reserve ($31) to get a taste of this sort of oak escalation in
action. Viña Tarapacá (Chile) is useful in this regard;
the Chardonnay Maipo ($7) is lightly oaked compared to the Chardonnay
Maipo Reserva ($11). Or taste the Trimbach Pinot Gris ($17) against
the somewhat controversial Ostertag Pinot Gris "Barriques" ($23).
Both are from Alsace,
but the former is oak-free, whereas the latter
uncharacteristically sees small oak barrels. Finally, just to prove the
sincerity of my earlier statement, here's an oaky California chardonnay that
even I love:
1997 Meridian Chardonnay Coastal Reserve (Edna Valley) ($16). Rich
aromas of pear, peach, kiwi, mango, and fig carry through to the creamy
butterscotch-and-clove palate. There's a firm, spicy apple character, along
with some bitter citrus carried by the high
acidity, and both work in harmony
with the strongly oaked finish. The structure is there to age a few years, but
this is a delicious wine right now.
Note: Two weekends from now, on January 23 and 24, the Boston Wine Expo
-- the biggest consumer wine event in the country -- hits the World Trade
Center. For a preview,
and scroll down to "Next Weekend."
Thor Iverson can be reached at email@example.com.
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