Eating Trees

Oaking certain wines is a long tradition. Maybe not as old as wine-making itself, but it’s certainly not far behind. Credit to those masters of wine-making, the French, with discovering just how much beauty the oaking process can reveal.

Oaking can take place at any stage, depending on the effect the winemaker is trying to achieve. Oak barrels, which are probably what most people envision when you mention oaking, allow evaporation and oxygenation to occur but at a slow enough rate that there is usually no spoilage. The flavors and aromas become more concentrated, while the oxygen that passes through the oak staves helps to soften the tannins. The most amazing part about oaking? It works for both red and whites.

The downside of oaking is the time frame. Even with a white, oaking in barrels is not for the impatient. Modern winemakers have, as you’ve probably guessed, developed a bit of a cheat to introduce the oaky characteristics without having to invest heavily in oak barrels – what one fellow described as the “oak teabag”. Essentially, the wine is placed in steel vats and a giant “teabag” of oak chips is added for a period of time.

Somehow it just doesn’t have that same sense of magic.

The real issue here is that while this method quickly adds the oak flavor, the steel vats do not allow for the evaporation and oxygenation that the barrels provide. You could very well end up with a wine that’s full of oak but with almost no counter-flavors.

Not that we’re naming any names.

The other major factor in the oaking process is the type of oak itself. Traditional French Oak tends to have a very tight grain. The flavors that are added tend to be more subtle and you’re more likely to notice that the oak has added structure and emphasized the natural flavors of the grape than any real oaky taste.

American Oak is a wider grain, so it can add a powerful punch when used. It’s not as popular with wine makers as it with whiskey and bourbon makers. (Macallan’s of Scotland owns large tracts of forest in the U.S. just for the purpose of harvesting American Oak.) American Oak calls for a big, fruity wine that can stand up to the heavy oak without giving ground.

Many winemakers have also started using Eastern European (or Slovenian) Oak. It’s finer grained than American and cheaper than French. It still has a powerful presence, usually more of a nutty flavor, so you still need a wine that can match it in potency.

So why the discourse on oak?

In part, because we want to say that oaking is not, in and of itself, a bad thing. Done patiently and wisely, oaking can be almost magical. It can add flavors ranging from vanilla to clove, smoke and coconut. Oaking can provide a beautiful body, and help the flavors of the grape shine. And this doesn’t have to be limited to barrels. The tea-bag method can add that little extra bit to turn a simple wine into something wonderful.

But what we don’t agree with are those winemakers who believe that oak is what it’s all about. There are those who churn out wine that has little grape left to enjoy. With every sip you feel like you’re munching on raw oak. Why bother with doing this to wine? Wouldn’t it be easier (and cheaper) to toss some oak chips into vodka and let that ferment?

And one of the most abused grapes is the poor Chardonnay. American winemakers can be particularly egregious here, turning a bright and fruity grape into something dry and dusty. Please, please, let the Chardonnay breathe! Let it be itself, a tasty little grape, not a towering tree in some deep, dark woods.

Fortunately, there are those who have remembered that Chardonnay can be a spectacularly delicious grape. So here’s our short list of great Chardonnays that still taste like, well, Chardonnay:

Mer Soleil Silver – packaged in a clay bottle rather than glass, this is light, fruit-forward, wine with a touch of mineral on the back.

Iron Horse – this is all about the vanilla, both on the nose and the palate. There’s also more subtle flavors of apple and herbs, giving it a complexity you expect in a chard.

Louis Michel & Fils Chablis – the epitome of French oaking. Subtle, barely noticeable, it provides a sturdy base without ever compromising the bright fruit flavors.

Devevey Bourgogne – another French classic. This is all about the flowers on the nose, and a balanced, buttery flavor. No acid, no after-taste, just smooth all around.

Hanna – a darker chardonnay than you might expect, there is oak here, but it doesn’t overwhelm the vanilla flavor. This wine is on the sweeter side and is heavier in the mouth. Pair it with stronger foods to really appreciate its potential.

Acacia – A complex wine, its a lovely example of what good oaking can do. There’s a careful balance here between juicy, fruity berries, a touch of oak and the mineral flavor of the soil. The oak is clearly part of the frame, but it isn’t the dominate element.

Ah, and now, having expounded on the benefits of proper oaking, it’s time for us to find a bottle to open and enjoy. Definitely feeling the Chardonnay groove today.



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