More thoughts on oak
Of all the variables that contribute aroma and flavor to wine, the most controversial must be oak.
In our current Wine Lovers' Voting Booth, in which we invited you to tell us how you would change things if you could be "wine maker for a day," 140 participants to date have responded that they would make wines with less oak. But another 38 have said they would make their wines with MORE oak. Participants in our Wine Tasting 101 feature for last month, "Detecting Oak," have posted similar reports: Tasting both oaked wines and unoaked wines, some find they like it woody, and some like it not.
And so it is throughout the world of wine. As I noted at this time last month ("Oak or Not," April 30), when oak is used as a condiment that wakes up the flavors of fruit, few will object. But when an excess of oak treatment yields a wine that reminds us of chewing on a plank, that's another story.
But there's nothing like a trip through the great wine regions of Europe to remind us that a knee-jerk anti-oak position makes no sense. As readers of our HTML/graphics edition will see in this week's photo of the barrel room at Chateau Cos d'Estournel, just about all wines of quality from France (or Italy or Spain) spend time in the wooden casks that the French call barriques. But these wines use oak as a spice, not a sauce, and judicious oak treatment adds complexity, not an overwhelming taste of wood.
In today's tasting reports I feature three wines that illustrate this point from different perspectives: A White Burgundy that uses oak well, in my opinion; a New Zealand Chardonnay that uses none at all; and an idiosyncratic item, a heavily oaked Beaujolais that I think would have done better with less.
Wine Lovers' Voting Booth:
Discuss oak and wine on our online forums:
Domaine Vincent Girardin 1999 Santenay "Le Saint Jean" ($17.99)
Clear golden color with a yellowish hue that may reflect oak, time in the bottle, or both. Rich scents of apples and chestnuts waft from the glass, developing notes of creme brulee with airing. Dry and full, fruit and oak work together in a complex, balanced flavor that's rich and long. Attractive wine, although traditionalists will note that it speaks with a distinct "Mid-Atlantic" accent, halfway between the Old World and the New. U.S. importer: Vineyard Brands Inc., Birmingham, Ala. (May 31, 2003)
FOOD MATCH: A fine match with pork chops braised with onions and garlic shoots ("scapes") with a pan reduction enriched with a bit of creme fraiche.
VALUE: Very good value indeed by the elevated standard of White Burgundies.
WHEN TO DRINK: The color and integrated flavors suggest maturity, but it will surely hold for several more years under good storage conditions.
WEB LINK: The winery Website is available in French and English. Here's a link to the English page:
Kim Crawford 2002 Marlborough Unoaked Chardonnay ($18.99)
This bright, fresh New Zealand white is sealed with a Stelvin brand screwcap, a modern closure that looks so much like a traditional "capsule" that I used my "foilcutter" to snip off the end before realizing that I was supposed to unscrew it. The new closure did an excellent job of protecting the pale straw-color contents, which showed a clean ripe-apple scent as fresh as just-squeezed cider; whiffs of butterscotch add appetizing nuances as the wine airs in the glass. The flavor is focused on apples, too, fresh and so fruity that it seems sweet, although its reported residual sugar is actually below most people's threshold of perception. It's a quaffable wine, although a bit on the simple and uncomplicated side. U.S. importer: Phillips-Hogue, Esparto, Calif. (May 31, 2003)
FOOD MATCH: Went well to wash down pork chops braised with onion and garlic, although the wine's simple fruit made it more a quencher than an active participant in the pairing.
VALUE: Although the wine is pleasant, the high markup makes it less than competitive at near $20.
WHEN TO DRINK: Deliciously quaffable now, but the Stelvin cap will preserve its freshness better than a cork; it would be an interesting experiment to hold a few bottles and see if they gain richness and complexity over a few years.
WEB LINK: The Kim Crawford winery is online at
Georges Duboeuf 2000 Moulin-A-Vent "Aged in Oak" ($12.59)
Oak aging is quite unusual in Beaujolais, so the English-language legend "aged in oak for six months" on the label makes this one from the "Cru" village of Moulin-a-Vent stand out. Unfortunately, the idiosyncratic oak treatment does it no favor. Dark garnet in color, it shows perfumed red-fruit aromas and flavors, strawberries and spice, but adds less attractive "vinous" aromas of alchol and piercing volatile acidity framed by rather raw notes of wood. Tart red-fruit flavors leave a hot and rather harsh finish with discordant notes of volatility and alcohol that makes me wonder whether the 13 percent listed on the label is accurate. Not undrinkable, but to be frank, one glass did not invite a second. U.S. importer: Winesellers Ltd., Skokie, Ill. (June 1, 2003)
FOOD MATCH: Served with a light dinner of free-range eggs scrambled with potatoes and mushrooms, chosen to complement an earthy red wine, the oaky Beaujolais' rough edges made it less than an appealing partner.
VALUE: The price is in an appropriate range for a cru Beaujolais, but this oaky wine is not the best example of Moulin-a-Vent.
WHEN TO DRINK: Approaching three years after the vintage, I don't see it getting any better with additional age.
WEB LINK: Here is a link to the first page of Georges Duboeuf's English-language Website, skipping the "Flash" introduction:
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For years, we've been emailing friends who ask what they should do, see, drink and where they should eat during their next visit to Napa Valley.
There had to be a better way than tapping out all those emails! There had to be an alternative to online visitor directories influenced by advertising. And there simply should be a website spotlighting talented "garage" winemakers producing delicious, balanced wines, not over-oaked wines that taste like they've been passed through the kidneys of a beaver.
We created ilovenapa.com, The Insider's Guide to Napa Valley, to fill the void, and we are pleased to introduce ilovenapa.com to fellow readers of The 30 Second Wine Advisor. While these wines are not often discounted, we've arranged for a 5 percent discount off wines purchased online by June 15. Just enter coupon code 66003, or click here:
These latest additions have our tongues wagging:
Chase Hayne Vineyard Zinfandel: Same vineyard, but half the price of Turley! (Regularly $36/bottle, with coupon, $34.20).
Arns Cabernet Sauvignon 1998: Wicked good; a dead ringer for a $150 cult Cab. (Regularly $50, with coupon $47.50).
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Last Week's Wine Advisor Index
The Wine Advisor's daily edition is usually distributed on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays (and, for those who subscribe, the FoodLetter on Thursdays). Here's the index to last week's columns:
Robert Mondavi at 90 (May 30, 2003)
More Pinot, more food (May 28, 2003)
Oregon Pinot and food (May 26, 2003)
Complete 30 Second Wine Advisor archive:
Wine Advisor FoodLetter: Porcini pork chops and Pinot (May 29, 2003)
Wine Advisor Foodletter archive:
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Monday, June 2, 2003