Not Seeing the Forest for the Wine

Not Seeing the Forest for the Wine

We recently tasted several California chardonnays and while most were pleasant to drink, some gave us the impression that we were chewing on an oak stump. This may be a desirable thing if you are a beaver; but we found the oak overpowered any fruit nuances that might have once been present.

The word “oaky” has become synonymous with California chardonnay due to the practice of aging wine in new barrels.  Used in proper balance, it can add wonderful complexity and flavor to a finished wine. In some cases, we feel there can be too much of a good thing.

The 90’s were the years of the barrel in the wine industry. More and more winemakers around the world began using most or all new oak barrels to age many of their wines. This is what the “experts” decided was the best way to make wine. Overuse of this practice can sometimes lead to the wood taking center stage rather than the fruit. Don’t get us wrong, we have nothing against using oak in the winemaking practice. Oaked chardonnay is still one of the best-selling varietals in the world and it would be foolish to tell you to stop drinking them if that’s what you like.

Wooden barrels have been used in the making of wine for centuries. Before technology created plastics and stainless steel, barrels were and still are a great way to store and age wine. Crafted by skilled coopers, wine barrels are the symbol of a winery cellar. The species of oak used can make a difference in what it adds to a wine. French and American oak are the two principal types of wood to make wine barrels. French oak, being more tightly grained used primarily for lighter styled reds such as pinot noir and whites like chardonnay adds tannin and flavors with more finesse. American oak will normally produce more vanilla or caramel flavors adding structure and complexity to the heartier reds like cabernet sauvignon, syrah and zinfandel.

A recent addition to the winemaker toolbox is the use of oak chips. Oak chips can be placed in a sack and lowered into a tank much like a tea bag into a cup of water. From an economic standpoint it makes more sense to use inexpensive oak chips when making a cabernet that will sell for $5 a bottle than spend $700 on a French oak barrel. While more traditional winemakers may look down their nose at this practice, it can add a little depth to less costly wine.

Regardless of the type of oak used and the amount of time the wine spends in contact with the barrel, balance of flavors is what makes a wine great. Ask your wine merchant to recommend a few wines that are made with little or no oak aging. We think you will be surprised to find these wines easy drinking and very enjoyable. We are not planning on giving up drinking oaked wines, just offering a change of pace.