30 Second Wine Advisor: Does Chardonnay need oak?

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In This Issue

 Does Chardonnay need oak?
Oak in Chardonnay is like mustard on a hamburger: In proportion, it's a delight; overdone, it's a disaster.
 10 Years, 10% off! The California Wine Club Celebrating 10 years' association with WineLoversPage.com, The California Wine Club offers our readers 10 percent off any wine club product.
 Daniel Gehrs 2005 "Unoaked" Santa Barbara County Chardonnay
A luscious, subtle mix of tropical fruits in a Chardonnay so fresh and fruity that it really needs no tinkering with oak.
 This week on WineLoversPage.com
Recent columns cover restaurant wine service and wines for amorous occasions like Valentine's Day. Today's Internet radio Community Call (TalkShoe) focuses on wine travel. Our wine forum discusses a report on a strange restaurant wine encounter, and our weekly poll samples your opinion on oak in wine.
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Does Chardonnay need oak?

Oak in Chardonnay is like mustard on a hamburger: In proportion, it's a delight; overdone, it's a disaster. If the hamburger is good enough to enjoy on its own without a condiment, that's fine, but it takes a very good burger to carry this off.

As it is with hamburgers, so it is with wine. Well, except maybe for the mustard.

I haven't always felt this forgiving about oak, particularly in white wines. During the 1990s in particular, way too many producers went crazy for oak, much as many producers today go crazy for abusively high levels of alcohol. Indeed, some similar reasoning may well have been in play: Like high-alcohol wines today, oaky wines played well to some segments of the market, and frankly, to some of the critics.

But as I wrote after a broad tasting of recent California reds a few years ago, "times and customs change, and it seems to me that - with a few notable exceptions - a certain order has returned to the wine universe as the pendulum swings back toward the center."

By and large - with some horrifying exceptions, of course - even many of the California and Australia Chardonnays that used to be among the worst oak-offenders have regained their balance.

As I've pointed out in the past, while the excessive use of oak may widely be considered a New World sin, oak in moderation has been a constant presence in the most traditional Old World wines. From Bordeaux to White Burgundy, many of Europe's greatest wine treasures wouldn't be the same without a discreet kiss of oak. Indeed, from Italy's Riservas to the oak-nurtured Crianzas of Rioja, many European classics require oak, by custom and by law.

In short, the problem with oak has never been its use but its abuse. As the Boston-area wine retailer Richard Eccleston memorably observed many years ago, "Oak should be a spice, not a sauce."

Still, there's a ready market - and not just among oak-phobes - for an all-fruit Chardonnay made in stainless steel without a hint of wood. I've been lukewarm to some examples from Down Under, but was most impressed with an unoaked Chard (named "Inox" after the brand name of its steel fermenters) from Santa Barbara's Melville Vineyards.

Today's tasting report also comes from Santa Barbara, from one of my favorite producers of the region, Daniel Gehrs. It's an impressive unoaked Chardonnay, richly textured and loaded with luscious tropical fruit without a molecule of oak.

Daniel Gehrs 2005 "Unoaked" Santa Barbara County Chardonnay

Daniel Gehrs

Transparent straw color. A luscious, subtle mix of tropical fruits - fresh figs and dates and a hint of pineapple on the nose; crisp white fruit on the palate, well shaped by an appropriate amount of acidity to provide structure and balance. I normally like a subtle touch of oak to add texture to Chardonnay, but this fresh fruit is really too good to need any tinkering. (Feb. 12, 2008)

FOOD MATCH: Clean, fresh fruit and good acidic structure make it a natural with veal ossobuco in bianco.

VALUE: The winery's announced $19 price is high, as street prices typically range from $10 to $15, at which point it is a very good value. It's an absolute no-brainer at California Wine Club's current $8.75 sale price.

WHEN TO DRINK: Fresh and delicious, it would be awfully hard to keep hands off right now. Its aging profile is hard to predict; it's not a traditional "cellar keeper" but should at least hold up for a couple of years under good storage conditions.

Here's a link to the Daniel Gehrs Website:

For California Wine Club's current sale, offering this wine at $8.75, click:

The winery also offers online sales, but pricing is high.

Compare prices and locate vendors for Daniel Gehrs Unoaked Santa Barbara County Chardonnay on Wine-Searcher.com:

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This week on WineLoversPage.com

Vino 101: Pride and wine service
How often have you asked a restaurant server about a bottle of wine and received an answer that showed he had no idea what he was talking about? "Don't let your pride get in the way," Jorge Eduardo Castillo advises restaurant servers.

WebWineMan: Valentine's Day Wines
So, you waited until the last minute to plan for the big day. Now, just what are you going to do to impress your sweetie? Richard Fadeley offers a few Rules of the Road about wine and amorous celebration.

Our Internet radio Community Call ("TalkShoe"): Wine tourism
This week's Internet radio Community Call ("TalkShoe") focuses on wine-related travel, whether around the corner or on the other side of the planet. Should you try to go in a group or fend for yourself? What effect has the Internet had on communication with wineries in distant lands? Join us Monday, Feb. 18, at Noon US EST (9 a.m. Pacific, 6 p.m. in Western Europe). Here's how to tune in:
All our previous Community Calls are available for listening or downloading from the archives. Click to listen!

WineLovers Discussion Group: The 30 Second Rule
Speaking of restaurant wine service, a forum participant in Arizona reports an an exceptionally inept encounter in this hilariou report. Read the story and comments in our WineLovers Discussion Group, then log in and add your own thoughts!

Compuserve Community Poll: Does oak improve wine?
Following up on today's 30 Second Wine Advisor topic, we invite your opinions about the value of oak in wine: Does a hint of wood always, sometimes, rarely or never improve the product? Tell us your opinion in this week's poll!

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:

 One drink healthy, two not so much? (Feb. 15, 2008)

 Lip-smacking white (Feb. 13, 2008)

 Wineries ... in Florida? (Feb. 11, 2008)

 Complete 30 Second Wine Advisor archive:

 Wine Advisor FoodLetter: Perfect biscuits (Feb. 14, 2008)

 Wine Advisor Foodletter archive: