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Is the oak age over?
I don't know whether it's just my buying choices or if the market is changing, but it seems to me that the age of the "oak bomb" is passing, and I for one won't mourn it.
Let's review: Long, long ago - well, back in the 1970s, anyway, when wine was just becoming a phenomenon in the U.S. - wine makers reserved their finest wines for aging in oak barrels, and they used oak judiciously. "Oak is a spice, not a sauce," the conventional wisdom went.
Wine had been kept in wooden barrels since the time of ancient Rome or maybe even Mesopotamia, but the French made the oak wine barrel into an art form from the Middle Ages forward, nurturing oak orchards in forests like Limousin and Alliers to make casks that would allow harsh young wines to mellow and take on subtle, intriguing flavor.
When wine became a consumer good, though, and critically driven favorites sought attention by kicking up ripeness and flavor, turning a world of subtle flavor pastels into technicolor, oak became the next big thing. Just about everybody put everthing in oak, and not necessarily the finest oak. Even oak chips and sawdust became viable additions, particularly in mass-made wines.
Flavor and aroma descriptors like "vanilla" and "pineapple" became common, even desired, as big oak met big fruit; big flavor won, even if subtlety and finesse were lost.
Can you tell that I wasn't a huge fan of this trend?
Lately, though, it seems that balance has been returning to the world, perhaps because market demand has hiked the price of quality oak past the point that everyday wines can bear. Sure, there's still plenty of oaky wine around. Chardonnay and lower-tier Merlot, Malbec, Shiraz/Syrah and many other varieties need to be triaged, both for high-alcohol ripeness and intrusive oak.
But subtle oak is back, and easy to find. And here and there, from New Zealand's Kim Crawford to today's featured wine, Courtney Benham 2013 "Unoaked" Santa Barbara County Chardonnay, we can enjoy the option of100% Chardonnay that never even comes within breathing distance of an oak barrel.
With a suggested retail price at $19 and an average retail tag at $15, the current $10.99 sale price with $1 shipping looks like an exceptional buy at The California Wine Club. My tasting notes are below.
Wine Focus for February: Organic and more
Does it matter when wine makers practice organic viticulture and vinification (okay, vine-growing and wine-making)? Can you taste the benefits (or the flaws) of organic, biodynamic or the less well-defined "natural" wine in the glass?
That's where our Wine Focus deliberations on the WineLovers Discussion Group takes us this month, as we try to enjoy and learn the nuances of natural and organic wines, the motives of the creative people who choose to make them, and our reactions as wine lovers.
Click to join the WineLovers forum discussion, with easy Facebook login via the "Social Login" icon at upper right on the forum page.
$1 Shipping Spring Wine Sale
Treat yourself to the taste of award-winning, handcrafted wines from California's best small family wineries, now on sale for as low as $9.99. Plus, you'll save up to $36 in shipping on every case.
No membership is required to take advantage of the savings. Shop early for the best selection.
Today's Tasting Report
Courtney Benham 2013 "Unoaked" Santa Barbara County Chardonnay ($10.99)
Transparent straw color with bright glints. Appetizing fresh, ripe apple aromas, Clean Chardonnay character without the usual overlay of oak. (Oak doesn't have to be a bad thing, but in this wine, the purity of the fruit is appealing.) Crisp and dry, fresh apple flavors follow the nose, with an intriguing hint of stony minerality lurking shyly in the background. Good Chardonnay, good food wine. (Feb. 11, 2015)
FOOD MATCH: A natural with grilled chicken or freshwater fish, it also pairs well with lightly spicy Asian fare. We enjoyed it very much with a Chinese-style stir-fry of spicy nappa cabbage with carrots, onions, ginger, garlic, five-spice and gentle Sichuan heat..
WHEN TO DRINK: It's beautiful now, crisp and fresh, but its good fruit and balance and sturdy modern metal screw cap suggest that it will hold up well under good storage conditions. At this very attractive sale price, it might well be worth buying a few extras to set aside as an experiment in cellaring.
VALUE: If you like the unoaked Chardonnay style - and it's very easy to like - it would be hard to beat this value in any dry white near the $10 price point. Wine-Searcher.com shows a $15 U.S. average at the only other source, a large retailer.
Alternatively, if you have local access to a Total Wine and More shop and are willing to pay a premium to pick up a bottle and take it home, Wine-Searcher.com offers these listings for Courtney Benham Unoaked Chardonnay.
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