By Bruce Cochran
This week we’ll look at one of the most important decisions a winemaker makes, something that affects a wine-and how much we like it-more than almost any other decision. It’s so important, that the best wines often have this information listed on the back label.
Try a new wine this week!
El Conde Reserve
One of the biggest differences in a chardonnay’s quality, style and price comes from the winemaker’s decisions about oak barrels. It’s so important that many of the best chardonnays will list these decisions on the back label, right next to other vital facts like where the grapes came from.
These days, some people prefer no oak at all, especially during the hot summer months when they choose lighter menus. Winemakers have to love this trend, since oak barrels cost a lot of money. One typical barrel holds about 25 cases or 300 bottles. At $500 to $1,000 for a new barrel, that’s $2-$3 per bottle-at wholesale!
Originally, barrels were simply the best storage container for wines. Today, winemakers must decide between more expensive, sweeter, French oak vs. less expensive, spicier American oak, or even less expensive Hungarian barrels. Then, how heavily should the barrels be “toasted,” the process of charring the insides of the barrels to add the famous toasty flavor that people seem to either love or hate, particularly in fuller-bodied, more concentrated chardonnays.
Since new barrels have more flavor to impart to the wine, that’s another expense that must be justified by the wine’s price. It’s very common to see the percentage of new barrels listed on a wine’s label. The best wineries tend to use them no more than three years. Then, how long should the wine remain in the barrels, getting the right amount of oak flavor into the wine without overdoing it and overpowering the fruit flavors.
So, what kind of barrels, how many of them new and charred how much, and used for how long? It all makes a difference, and we depend on the winemaker to balance all of these factors to give us balanced wines that we love to experience.
A good example of an oaky chardonnay, one that’s richly textured, full-flavored yet balanced, is El Conde Reserve, from Chile’s Aconcagua Valley, which sells for about $16.