This is the second installment of Leggy and Luscious, wherein Jill Billante, a Senior Producer at AC360°, studies at the American Sommelier Association. She's quite tall and she enjoys great wine.
When you hear people talk about "oaky" wine, what comes to mind? Are you thinking to yourself, "obviously Chardonnay," or is that just me? More specifically, I think of a California Chardonnay. Do you love an "oaky" wine or do you hate it? Do you judge people who ask for an oaky Chardonnay?
I've noticed an oak backlash as of late. Those who still wholeheartedly admit they love an oaky, buttery Chardonnay may find they're the recipient of snooty stares and full-on judgment, possibly along the lines of "that's so 1999."
Sometimes there is so much oak you feel like you're chomping on a stick, and despite the above mention of California, that is certainly not an indictment of all California wines. There are plenty of other over-oak offenders out there: California doesn't have a monopoly on over-oaking.
Over a barrel
What the wine is aged in, stainless steel or wood barrel, is one of the three main components of wine flavor along with the taste of the grape varietal and the terroir. Barrels give the wine flavor characteristics, while stainless steel does not. Stainless steel is used by winemakers who want an anaerobic aging process and want the grape and terroir flavor to shine. It's also cheaper than a barrel.
Winemakers use oak barrels for more than flavor. Barrels allow a small amount of oxygen into the wine, which changes its structure. The wood softens the wine, taking out some of the sharper angles that are more commonly found in stainless steel fermented wines. Wood also imparts tannins that can felt between the lip and gum, unlike grape tannins that hit the top of the tongue.
Oak is expensive, it loses most of its flavor after one use and the more wine that is in direct contact with the barrel, the more oak flavor you get. A small barrel gives the wine more oak flavor.
With the basics out of the way, that's the last time I'm going to use the word "oaky." My wine sensei at the American Sommelier Association, Andrew Bell, wants you and me to strike that descriptor from our tasting lexicon. Why? Because winemakers and wine pros don't use this term. Why? Because there are seven basic flavors that comprise what many commonly refer to as an o___ taste.
When you can identify these flavors independent of the general term "oak," you can be more specific about what kind of wine you like and why. This allows you to expand and experience wines from different producers and regions you may not have thought of before.
It was harder than I thought it would be to stop describing a wine as o___. It's reflexive. So how does one break this nasty habit? The keys to unlocking next chapter in the bacchanal bible are about to be revealed.
Seven words for oak
If a wine has been aged in American Oak, then it will present flavors of coconut and dill. I think that's an unusual taste in a wine, but it can be lovely. In my experience thus far, I've been able to taste only dill. The coconut has proved more elusive. Have you picked up either of these tastes in your wine? Riojas and Australian Shiraz are both good wines to try as they are traditionally aged in American Oak.
Of course, then there are the variables. Winemakers, I've found, are not a linear bunch: it isn't all black and white, or red and white. They mix it up; some wine is aged in stainless steel and French Oak. I recently sipped a lovely red that was aged in both American and French Oak.
As for a word on butter: buttery is a characteristic often ascribed to oak, a common misconception. Winemakers put wine through a second fermentation, referred to as malolactic fermentation. This process, malo for those in the know, is the conversion of malic into lactic acid creating diacetyl. This element - diacetyl - in a hot climate creates a buttery creamy feeling and taste and adds roundness.
There is no shame in liking wine that has gorgeous, complex caramel, vanilla or toast scents and tastes. The only crime is not being able to know what you like and why. So, empower yourself tell your sommelier that you want a wine that has flavors of vanilla or caramel and if you're presented with something that tastes like a 2×4, send it back and try again - or you could do what my instructor would, and order a beer.
Any growth Bordeaux like:
American and French Oak
Sniff, sip and leave your impressions in the comments below. We'll chat about 'em in future Leggy and Luscious installments and in the meantime – happy drinking!