Fruit set is underway in Napa Valley

Fruit set is underway in Napa Valley

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The what and why of oak seasoning


 “Let me know what you think,” my friend said as he poured a few ounces of a mystery white wine. He kept his hand over the label so I couldn’t see what it was.

I lifted the glass, admired the golden color, and then swirled it a few times to release its aromatics. Thick, viscous legs oozed down the inside of the tulip-shaped wine glass. I inhaled a few quick sniffs, noting its aroma of sweet, tropical fruit. Then, for the confirming taste, I took a sip and chewed on the rich, buttery nectar for a few moments, and then issued my proclamation.

“A quintessential Chardonnay. It’s got all the usual suspects. Pineapple, oak, butterscotch, and vanilla. It’s most likely a Californian, but could be an Australian. A little rich and sweet for my preferred style, but it’s a good version of what’s popular today,”

Smiling broadly, he passed me the bottle. I scanned the label. Hmmm . . . a Vin Blanc. Then a much slower scan. Where’s the Chard? And then a third time, quite deliberately. I couldn’t believe it. No Chardonnay. Not a drop.

It was a proprietary blend from Santa Barbara County, of three classic Rhone Valley whites. Disbelieving what I read, I took a few more sips and focused again on all pertinent components. Perhaps a label mix-up. (Years ago I clobbered a friend of mine who offered that “wrong label” excuse when I served him a Red Bordeaux, and he identified it as a Chianti Reserva.) No, Tommer, it’s no stinking Chardonnay.

Just as my friend did, I described it accurately, but, unfortunately, I did not nail the wine. And even though this one looked like a duck, walked like a duck, and even quacked like a duck, it wasn’t a duck. Like Daffy, I was tricked by a wooden decoy—French oak type. The three grapes were Roussanne, Marsanne, and Viognier, and they spent six months soaking up the buttery richness and spice from French oak barrels, thereby mimicking all the archetype New World Chardonnay attributes that I perceived.

Oak gets into wines via several routes, and a quick reading of the back label occasionally identifies the source. Barrel fermentation combined with barrel aging will give you a maximum hit. Stainless steel fermentation combined with some barrel aging will be less so. The words “barrel select” or “reserve” usually imply some oak contact even if from, (I kid you not!) oak chunks, chips or oak essence that have been swirled through the wine.

Both red and white wines that have undergone oak aging and/or fermentation will smell more intense and aromatic, feel richer on the palate, have a fuller body, and white wines, particularly, will exhibit a deeper color than those without oak influences. No wonder many winemakers refer to it “oak seasoning.”

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