Robert Russell: Oak, Wherefore Art Thou ?

·4 min read

Wine that is aged in oak barrels sports tastes like tobacco, cedar, coconut, and vanilla, or so they say. Having educationally tasted and blind-tasted wines for hours on end, this writer has never had a good handle on identifying aging in oak. One writer suggests that the process is easy. For white wines, the taste is like a crushed-up handful of Cheerios. They suggest that the taste is a little musky. For red wines, the sensation is like a toasted marshmallow, with its sweet smokiness.

This writer knows his weaknesses, and oak is an Achilles Heel. So armed with this information, one went to see an expert, Mary, at Cuban Liquor. With cards on the table, I suggested that I could identify dozens of fruits in wine, and tastes like Eucalyptus, along with barnyard and many other odd tastes, but I have no sense of oak. Thus, tasked with finding both a heavy, and a non-oaked Chardonnay, her recommendations respectively were a Ramey Russian River from Sonoma, and Sisters Forever from the Central Coast, both in California.

Robert Russell
Robert Russell

For a tasting panel, we rounded up two other couples, for a dimmer of Beef Bourguignon, a recipe courtesy of Julia Child. All age-appropriate, we were all members of the classes of 1971 and 1972. We set up six glasses on a table near the entry, of the un-oaked wine, Sisters Forever. All knew we would taste two Chardonnays. The first wine was very well received, it tasted of fresh fruit, both pear and pineapple.

It seemed nobody was going to comment on oak or no oak, until one spoke up, “there is no oak on this wine!” Immediately shushed, the group continued to enjoy the wine. The second wine was the well-oaked Ramey. Its reception was not nearly as cordial by the group. Only one of the six thought it was a tasty wine. The others preferred not to drink it. The only proponent of the wine was a scotch drinker, so maybe rough-tasting drinks are his thing. This writer believes the taste of oak was not evident. However, others noted clear oaky notes in wine two.

This drinker was imperceptive of that nuance. However, one could taste the wine's bulkiness and obfuscation of the fruity notes, so that will be one's signal for oak, remembering that everybody has different taste sensations and experiences. Additionally one can notice that oaked Chardonnay is slightly darker than un-oaked. It is perhaps is the best known of all white wines, especially those of California. It is difficult to recall a situation in which Chardonnay is not the white wine of choice in social gatherings. The thought of oaked Chardonnay is to create a big flavor that exudes richness.

It grows around the world. The white wines from Burgundy are almost exclusively Chardonnay. White Burgundy wine, known as, Bourgogne Blanc is popular in the French wine region of Burgundy. A small percentage of white Burgundy wine includes other grape varieties like Aligoté, Pinot Gris, and Pinot Blanc, and not many of them are ever oaked. Another telltale hint that a Chardonnay is oaked, is that the fruits do not taste fresh.

They show baked apples or pears, instead of fresh fruits. The oak tastes include toast, nuts and caramel, the latter signifying richness. This fuller body is typically much heavier than most white wines. The more one salivates, the more the wine is a high acid indicator, and Chardonnay is a relatively high acid white wine, so the back of the mouth will feel a little burn, as it too has relatively high alcohol. Trends from 30 years ago had popular California Chardonnay immersed in heavy oak.

Critics called it “flabby” wine, sometimes defined as “lacking resilience or firmness,” some describe it as “weak and ineffective.” It may also mean lacking structure, I thus feel that without a fresh fruit Chardonnay is lacking the basic expected flavor, and will use that as a bellwether sign. Nevertheless, one should remember that some of the creamy and buttery tastes in a white wine might not be from oak aging, but Malolactic fermentation.

Remember the majority of white wine in the world does not ferment in oak, but mainly stainless steel. When you read tasting notes on a Chardonnay, if the descriptors include crisp or refreshing, it is un-oaked wine. If they include rich and creamy, it is more than likely an oaked wine. I wonder if Juliet could distinguish oak in her wine?

Stay healthy, and Cheers

You can contact Robert Russell at rob@rlr-appraisals.com

This article originally appeared on Shreveport Times: Robert Russell: Oak, Wherefore Art Thou?

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting