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WINE AND FOOD WEDNESDAY
02/13/2013
Wednesday Warblings
How To Know When Your Wine Has Too Much Oak

By Charles Olken

Last night was one of those moments when a bunch of fancy Cabernets leaves us scratching our collective heads. At Connoisseurs’ Guide, a typical tasting consists of two flights of eight wines tasted blind. That task, the joy of our role in life, takes about three hours—and then we eat.

Now, I don’t want to say that last night’s wines were awful or anything like that. How can a batch of wines, most of which come with price tags from $45 to $100, be anything but wonderful?

Think about that question for a moment. Sixteen expensive wines and not a one of them set our little hearts aflutter. The most frequently heard question on the night was, “Would you pay $50 for that?” And the most frequently heard answer was, “No”.

Please understand. In our business, there are going to nights like that. It is in the nature of tasting hundreds of wines each month in order to keep our faithful band of readers informed. It goes with the territory. But one does have to wonder when a simple, $23 wine comes out top over all those high-priced spreads in our taste-tests just because we could find the fruit.

And that is the answer to the puzzle we posed in the title line. How do you know when your wine has too much oak? It is simple really. It is when your $50 wine tastes like cedar and toast and caramel and gets its clock cleaned by a modest effort of modest ambition being sold at a modest price. There is nothing wrong with that $23 wine. It will wind up as one of our highly recommended GOOD VALUES in our April report on a broad sweep California Cabernets. And, there will be plenty of fancy, highly oaked wines that will be recommended because they will have delivered the balancing fruit and acidity and not be just exercises in oak and ripeness and fifteen-year tannins.

How do you know when your wine has too much oak? It is when someone asks if one should spend $50 for your $50 Cabernet and the answer is “No”.


 

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Comments

Too much oak?
by tom barras
Posted on:4/24/2013 9:38:08 AM

Better late than never, Charlie on this post. 

 But my answer to your question is "When it tastes like anything else but wine!"  Not vanilla. Not toast. Not mocha. And not like the blade on my radial arm saw!

In The Eye of The Beholder
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:4/24/2013 12:51:17 PM

Hello Tom--

Frankly, this is a good topic and one that deserves more exploration.

Oak is a little like Brett these days. There was a time when Brett was part of the expected in wine. Then, it became a bad thing, a very bad thing to some, because we all came to realize that fruit has character and that character was what the grapes were giving us instead of some unwanted organism.

Oak may not be an unwanted organism, but it does change the taste of the wine--sometimes for the better and in varying amounts for various palates.

I am one who has always and continuously loved Chardonnay. And I understand that winemaking changes Chardonnay for better or for worse depending on the eye (tongue) of the beholder.

Forty years ago, when Chardonnay began to escape old, big, wooden (usually old redwood) fermenters and were moved into temperatutre controlled stainless steel, the fruit began to move front and center. Soon, Chardonnay began to move from stainless steel fermention into new or used oak for ML fermentation and aging.

It was not long, however, before it was discovered that barrel-fermentation of Chardonnay was producing smoother, richer wines and the oak-aging phenomenon got into full sway.

At that point, folks here were looking at wines like LeFliave white Burgs with their very toasty top notes and saying, "why can't we do that?". And so they did.

So just as there are people who think Chablis is the truest depiction of Chardonnay in Burgundy. so too are there people who now argue for little or no discernable oak.

I admit that I am not one of them. Chardonnay by itself is about like New York steak by itself. Good but could be made better with the right applications of heat, spices, sauces.

I appreciate your comments on how to tell if a wine is too oaky. They are thoughtufl and thought-provoking. So much so, in fact, that I may resurrect this blog entry and append your comments to it.

Charlie

when wine has too much oak
by tom barras
Posted on:4/24/2013 3:27:16 PM

Charlie,

Somewhere along the line, oak began to test my threshhold, and soon thereafter it blasted through it--especially for CA Chardonnays plus thoee few SB producers who courted Chardonnay fans with a heavy dose of oak "seasoning." 

I'm more tolerant of oak in reds, particularly non-first growth, upper echelon left and righ bank Bordeaux.  But I'm less tolerant when it comes to lovely, old style Cote Roties.  Permit me to enjoy what nature has given us!  La Las notwithstanding!

No question oak imparts a certain "flashyness' to the nectar.  However, when the underlying grapes become background music to winemaker interventions,  I begin to question who the winemaker is courting, or if they are busy masking some basic flaws in the wine.

Lastly, I love a tender, juicy, well-marbled NY Steak as well--most often with a slight dusting of salt, pepper and a whiff of Thyme and Summer Savory.

Tom

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