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Thursday Thorns
How To Know When Your Wine Has Too Much Oak—Part 2

By Charles Olken

If a little of something is good, then a lot of it must be better. If you ask my granddaughter if she wants a cupcake, she will answer with enthusiasm. If you ask her if she wants two cupcakes, she will offer to become your best friend forever.

There was a time when Chardonnay in California was in no danger of having too much oak. That is because we did not use all that much oak in our wines. But then things changed. A new generation of winemakers realized that our wines were stuffy and stale compared to those of Europe. Blame fell in all directions—too much time in big redwood tanks, a total lack of temperature control in making our wines, the virtual non-use of small and relative new oak barrels in aging, the total non-existence of oak barrels from France where the oak has different characteristics.

Of course, it must be said that we also had very little Chardonnay back in the day and that if one looks back only a generation or two ago, one finds that California wine in general was still suffering from a lack of serious attention in most quarters. In the Post-Prohibition world, it was not table wine that led us back to the vinous world but higher alcohol fortified wines. Indeed, it was not until 1968 that table wine production even caught up with dessert wine production.

That we did not use oak, particularly new French oak, is therefore not so surprising despite a few outliers like James Zellerback who founded Hanzell in the hills above the Sonoma Valley. During the 1960s, things began to change, driven mostly by a new generation of winemakers whose worldly experiences told them that California could do better. Pioneers like Joe Heitz, Brad Webb, Paul Draper, Dick Graff were soon joined by folks like Warren Winiarski, Donn Chappellet and others and California viniculture changed for good.

Along the way, we discovered oak, and the winedrinking public rose up and cheered. Chardonnay, which is a perfectly fine grape without oak, turns out to be a far better one when winemaking techniques like barrels and malolactic fermentation and the like are applied to it. And, under the theory that two cupcakes are better than one, Chardonnay got pushed about as far as it could without losing all reference to vinosity.

That excess, that “let’s find the limits” attitude gave rise to the ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) movement. And ultimately, there has now arisen a call, indeed a demand from the next generation of drinkers that Chardonnay taste not like oak or butter or popcorn but of pure fruit. Chardonnay can do that. It has plenty of fruit. But, it does still like a little winemaking and that is today’s battleground.

How much oak is too much? A fellow winewriter recently offered this comment, “When it tastes like anything but wine”. One might agree with that comment on the surface, but the comment is far too generic for my taste, and, in truth, in our back and forth repartee, we did push further into the topic.

Ultimately, however, we found ourselves falling back on clichés and the real answer turns out to be that too much oak is a learned response based on experience and current thinking. Too much oak in the 1980s and 1990s was “lots of new oak”, “double oaking” and the like. Too much oak today runs all the way to “if I can taste it, it is too much”. And never mind those glorious Leflaive hyphenated Montrachets.

These things happen. There are trends and fads and new generations with their own sensibilities. Wine has very few absolutes. But the real arbiters about too much oak are you, the wine drinkers. And what was the right amount of oak ten and twenty years ago may not be the right amount of oak today. There are even days when my granddaughter thinks two cupcakes is one too many.


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Part 2 - Too much oak?
by tom barras
Posted on:4/25/2013 6:43:32 PM


Wine appreciation, or lack thereof, is a very personal and subjective experience.  Whether the topic be oak, acidity, tannins, structure, balance or numerical ratings, it all tends to depend on who the wine drinker is. 

Perspectives vary as do palates, experience and "wine buyer types."  Most of my friends love Chardonnay, especially California.  I'm tolerant of it, but seldom purchase it. 

I recently semi-enjoyed an overcooked port tenderloin at a new acquaintance's house.  He served his 90 rated red wines that he either culled from your electronic version (which he claims he has great difficulty opening) or from whatever is on the WS pull out sheet. That's his methodology for buying wine.

But what I found quite interesting and confounding, since he worked for years in the supermarket business as a buyer, what his exclamation about oaky wines.  "I don't know about you, but I have never sucked on an oak tree.  What's all this crap about oak?"

I and another gent at the dinner tried to explain what is meant by oak in wines, but, alas, it fell on more than deaf ears.  He obviously feels that there is too much affectation in wine commentary.

How much oak is too much for him?  Who knows?  He will never know because he will likely never try to learn about the basics of wine appreciation.  His loss.


Too Much--Analysis?
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:4/25/2013 6:55:34 PM

Hello Tom--

I sometimes wonder whether it is we, the insiders with our ability to discern all kinds of things and tend to measure them by palate impression, who are losing out instead of/rather than those whose palates are not so suprebly honed and just know what they like.

Because they all started tasting the same!
by Marcia Macomber
Posted on:4/25/2013 9:43:21 PM

Loved this post, Charlie. I, too, have been in and out of the ABC camp. For quite awhile it seemed every Chardonnay that was poured for me tasted the same: The same levels of vanilla in the toasting; the same amount of malo, butter, and, oh, perhaps I could find some fruit in there.

When I was lucky enough to get something that departed from the mainstream I started asking questions: Why is this Chardonnay different? The answers varied, of course. But they usually began along the lines of: stainless steel, neutral oak for only 10%, no malo, etc.

Now, there's nothing wrong with oak, malo, butter, vanilla, etc., until your wine begins tasting like all the others' wine. Then it's a commodity. Your label can be interchangeable with a zillion others. 

I've had some love Chardonnays recently with all of the above characteristics -- and yet they remained very unique in their profiles. Some might even call it "balance." The challenge for every winemaker is likely similar: How do you make a memorable Chardonnay (insert any varietal name here) while still appealing to the audience you are targeting? It's a good challenge to have.

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