Who needs oak?
But it's worth mentioning that oak is not necessarily a bad thing. Many, perhaps most, fine wines spend some time in oak casks during the winemaking process. Wooden barrels were used in wine making for centuries before stainless steel tanks were feasible; visit the greatest chateaus of Bordeaux or the finest caves of Burgundy and you'll see rows of oak barrels in which great wines are slowly aging.
From Chianti to Rioja and around the world, fine and ageworthy red wines without oak would be unthinkable, and wine makers spend a great deal of time contemplating oak and how to use it. Small barrels and new wood impart more oak flavor and tannins to the wine than larger wooden tanks or older wood; American oak, Yugoslavian oak, many different kinds of French oak ... each contributes different kinds of aromas and flavors to the wine.
So where do wine makers go wrong? In my opinion, trouble comes when wood fights fruit and wood wins. A wine that smacks more of vanilla, coconut or freshly sawed planks - the signature scents of heavy to excessive oak - seems to me to miss the mark.
Why do they do it, then? In the case of some modest wines, it may simply reflect an effort to compensate for mediocre grapes. But it's clear that some consumers - including some of the most influential critics - enjoy the taste of oak. A rave from a powerful wine writer can be money in the bank for a wine maker.
But I like the pithy advice once rendered by Richard Eccleston, a well-known Boston-area wine retailer: "Oak is a spice, not a sauce."
If you would like to join in an online conversation on this subject, it's a currently active topic in our Wine Lovers' Discussion Group. To read the messages or join in, you can click directly to this discussion at http://www.wineloverspage.com/cgi-bin/sb/index.cgi?fn=1&tid=25435.
Let's wrap up with a tasting report on a New Zealand Chardonnay that sees no oak whatsoever, and emphasizes that point on the label. It's an attractive wine, bright and fresh and focused on fruit. But to be absolutely honest, I don't think a dash of oaky spice would have done it any harm.
Kim Crawford 2000 Unoaked Marlborough Chardonnay ($18.99)
FOOD MATCH: This wine made an exceptionally happy marriage with pan-seared scallops on frichi (Friuli cheese crisps) and a side dish of short pasta topped with arugula.
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Friday, Jan. 18, 2002