The oakiest thing I’ve ever tasted

In Uncategorized on June 3, 2010 at 7:28 pm

I’m not going to name names here, but I tasted the oakiest Chardonnay I’ve ever tasted yesterday. I mean, so oaky it made Rombauer Chardonnay taste like AC Chablis. Seriously, it tasted like the bottle was made of oak. Out of relatively morbid curiosity, I would actually like to try this wine again when the oak has resolved a bit, just to see if there’s some fruit under there. Unfortunately, I don’t think that oak is going to mellow out for ten years, and I didn’t percieve anywhere near enough fruit for it to live that long.

This isn’t the first time, and most likely won’t be the last time I complain about over-oaked Chardonnay, or over-oaked wine in general. I freely admit my bias for white Burgundy over most domestic Chardonnay, but that’s only because white Burgundy is a wine that’s about fruit and balance, and pairing with food, and so often I drink new world Chardonnays that taste like some sort of a cocktail. Wine, and I mean all wine, should be about the fruit first and foremost. Good fruit makes good wine, with or without oak. Most entry-level white Burgundies see no new oak, and they are fantastic. They are lithe, elegant, and marvelous food wines. As you move up the scale in Burgundy, you start to see more use of oak. This is because the quality of the fruit goes up, as does the expected ageworthiness of the wines, so the winemakers are able to create a balance between the oak and the fruit. Oak barrels impart flavor into wine for only about 3-4 years of use. Since barrels are very expensive, these winemakers will use their newest barrels for their finest wines, the Grand Cru wines. As the barrels get older, they will be cycled down to the Permier Cru wines, and finally, when they are past the point of imparting any flavor character to the wine, they are used for the cheapest wines.

Conversely, most American Chardonnays are made with a specific flavor profile in mind, regardless of their price point. Now, this trend has begun to change, but there are still plenty of cheap Chardonnays out there that are trying to seem like big, oaky, buttery ones. Now, regardless of how I feel about that style of Chardonnay, the simple fact is that making wines like that costs money. When you try to do it on the cheap, you have to cut corners. You use oak chips or sticks in a steel fermenter rather than using real barrels. You make adjustments in the lab to get it tasting the way you want it to, rather than just letting the juice ferment naturally so it can taste the way it wants to taste.

Think of it this way; I love steak. A good steak with some bernaise, truffle fries, and some arugula salad will make me smile any day. But if I don’t want to spend what that costs, I have a choice. I can either get something cheaper, like chicken and rice, which I also love, or I can try to re-create the steak and bernaise on the cheap. I can substitute ground beef for the steak, mix together some mayo and mustard instead of bernaise, have frozen store-bought fries and skip the truffle oil, and use iceberg instead of arugula.

I’ll have the chicken. It’ll make me appreciate the steak more later.

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