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01 April 2005

recycledJuice: Got Wood?

One of the earliest posts on le blog:

BarrelGot Wood?

Have you ever glanced at a wine label and seen the phrase, “Toasty Oak?” Do the terms oak-aged or barrel-aged mean anything to you? Are you starting to wonder whether or not you absolutely must have oak in your wine? Do you even know if you like the taste of a wooded wine?

OK, no more questions, just a simple taste-test: Let’s compare two wine styles: ‘Oaked’ vs. ‘un-oaked.’ Chardonnay is a great wine for this test. Its style can vary greatly, depending on how a winemaker decides to treat the wine. I recently found two simple, inexpensive Chardonnays, both under eight dollars. Stony Hollow, 2002/03 from Chile is six dollars. It’s aged in stainless steel tanks without any oak. Oxford Landing Chardonnay, 2002 from Australia is seven bucks. This Aussie Chardonnay is aged in oak. So the obvious question is, “Why go to the trouble of aging a wine in oak barrels?” As you’ll see, oak can dramatically change a wine’s aroma and flavor. Traditionally, barrels made of French oak are charred on the inside. As wine ages in these semi-burnt barrels, additional scents and flavors are imparted to the wine. In winespeak, oak aging adds a layer of complexity to wine. Now, onto our taste-test.

Chill both wines for about a half hour. Pour the Stony Hollow into a glass, swirl it around, jab your nose into the glass and give the wine a sniff. I smell crisp pears and apples. This scent reminds me of biting into a green Granny Smith apple right out of the fridge. Now swirl and sniff the Oxford Landing Chardonnay. It’s made from the same grape, but the scent is very different. I smell ripe tropical fruits such as pineapple and mango. I also catch a whiff of vanilla, cloves and caramel. This spicy-sweet scent is the primary tip-off that your wine has had some contact with oak. A quick oak aside: I seriously doubt that our seven-dollar wine was aged in fine oak barrels. Otherwise, we would be talking about a wine costing at least fifteen dollars. It’s more likely that this wine was aged in tanks containing oak chips or oak staves (hopefully the wood has since been filtered out).

Now, let’s taste the wines. Don’t be afraid to swish and swirl the wines in your mouth (you can pretend it’s Scope). You might even try tilting your head forward and opening your mouth slightly while drawing in some air. This is rather elegantly referred to as ‘slurping.’ Be careful though, it does take some coordination. Sip and slurp the Stony Hollow Chardonnay. I taste fresh, crisp fruit with that slightly bitter bite one gets from a not-quite-ripe apple or pear. The wine’s tart character makes my mouth water. Of course, this slobber-inducing effect makes for a rather food friendly wine. Next sip and slurp the Oxford Landing Chardonnay. What do you taste? Right off the bat, the wine seems heavier in my mouth. The flavors are decidedly less tart. I taste ripe tropical fruit with a little vanilla chaser. To me, this wine shouts, “Oak!” So, which wine do you prefer? Of course there is no right answer. Personal preference is all that really matters.

In general, I gravitate towards ‘un-oaked’ Chardonnay when I’m pairing wine with food. If you too like this style, try the original sans oak Chardonnay: French Chablis. Chablis wines are usually made without any oak treatment. They are also slightly more expensive. A reasonably priced Chablis that illustrates the au naturel character of the Chardonnay grape is La Chablisienne Cuvée Lles Clos, 2001 ($16). Try it with lighter, simple fare such as oysters, creamy cheeses or grilled chicken breast. If you want to explore the more flamboyant side of Chardonnay in all its spicy-sweet, ‘oakey’ glory, there are many California and Australian wines that fit the bill. For a definite fruit-oak punch, try Gallo (yes that Gallo) of Sonoma Reserve Chardonnay, 2002 ($12), from California. This wine goes well with richer foods such as marinated chicken or pork, salmon and even fajitas. Of course there is more to a wine than whether or not it’s been aged in oak. But the next time your waiter describes a Chardonnay as having “lively oak flavors,” you’ll at least have a good idea of what to expect. Cheers!


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