Trends come and go with wine as with other things, but one I’ve noticed lately is becoming so popular that I think we should take a look at it. This trend is even having a grassroots effect on wineries and the styles they make for us.
Try a new wine this week!
I saw recently a side-by-side comparison of the same wine in two styles. The first was the Chardonnay “Santa Maria Cuvee” by Ken Volk, a blend of three tiny vineyards in Santa Barbara County. The second was Ken Volk’s “Jaybird” Chardonnay, made from the same three vineyards but aged in stainless steel barrels.
Each had its fans, and I was surprised at how many people liked the unoaked version. It was almost enough to make me wonder why they used oak in the first place.
Actually, long ago many things were stored and shipped in barrels. Wines picked up flavor from oak barrels and, in typical American fashion, winemakers began to experiment.
There are many types of oak available for experimentation, too. There are at least 10 forests in France that are said to contribute subtly different aspects to a wine’s flavor, aroma and texture. And comparing wines aged in French oak with those aged in American oak has gone on for a long time. Many winemakers use a little of each, oftentimes claiming spiciness from domestic barrels and an impression of sweetness from French barrels.
And winemakers didn’t stop there. The age of the barrel makes a difference. Each time a barrel is used, it has less flavor left for the next wine it holds. After three or four years it may be more or less a neutral vessel. A more intensely flavored wine might be aged with a higher percentage of younger barrels for more oak flavor, and vice versa. The flavor is amplified with longer time in the barrel.
And then there’s the toast factor. Oak barrels today are routinely charred on the inside, giving the wine a flavor described as “toastiness.” Some barrels are charred a little, others more, depending upon a winemaker’s vision for a particular wine.
Much like a chef considering which spices to add to a recipe, and in what amounts, winemakers spend a lot of time thinking about a barrel strategy for each wine they make.
Unoaked wines tend to be lighter and simpler than their oaked siblings. Some people prefer unoaked wines with lighter dishes, and oak-aged wines with dishes that are richer and more complex. The rich, buttery nature of some chardonnays can be attributed at least in part to barrel aging.
I’m sure that most wineries don’t mind if we prefer their wines with little or no oak, because barrels are expensive. Many cost between $500 and $1,000 each, and hold about 25 cases. That can be a couple of dollars per bottle wholesale.
With so many wine lovers and wineries liking the idea of unoaked wines, wines with more pronounced oak flavors are becoming more difficult to find. Wildhurst Chardonnay from Lake County, north of Napa Valley’s Mount St. Helena, is still made in a rich, buttery, oak-aged style, and can show you this style for around $15 a bottle. It’s great with crab cakes, lobster bisque and similar dishes.