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Oaked versus Unoaked (or Naked)

Monday, December 21, 2009

There's been a war brewing within the wine industry for the past decade, if not longer, and that's on the issue of oaked wines, with more focus on white wines than red wines.

Oaked

The use of oak has been a standard in winemaking for centuries, with wine being either fermented in oak barrels or age in them.  Robert Mondavi did much to teach American winemakers about the use of oak during the 60s and 70s.  Oak, whether American or French, has been the mainstay for the construction of much wine barrels, and even when wine hasn't been fermented and aged in oak barrels, there has been the use of oak chips and staves to impart the ‘beauty' of oak.

If you noticed, I used quotes when talking about the beauty of oak, because it's not that it's a bad thing, but many people do go too damned far with it.  Not all of us like a Chardonnay that is very buttery, nor do many of us like a wine that has too much spice in it; another characteristic of oak.

Oak, and any wood for that matter, can affect the color, texture, tannin level, aroma and ultimately the taste of wine.  Oak, in moderation, can bring about some very masterful results in wine, but done too much, and it can turn off some palates, including my own.

With oak barrels, it imparts character to the wine, while allowing just a little bit of oxygen to enter, affecting the taste.  Note that this is not enough oxygen to turn the wine bad, but enough to speed up the aging process.  You usually can tell a white wine that has had thorough [as well as extended] time in oak due to a stronger brown-yellow color.  Also, depending upon their level of 'toastyness,' the barrels can also impart that to the wine as well.  French and American oaks are the most used, but others use Slovenian and Russian oak.

In many cases, the oak will impart flavors which overpower that of the wine itself, so that you don't taste the fruits, but the wood.

Unoaked

"I want my fruit!"  

This could be said for most of the folks that love a fruit forward wine, whether the fruit is exotic, citrus, or everyday (apple, peach, plum, strawberry; you get the idea).  Unoaked wines give you a cleaner, lighter, and crisper taste.  There is nothing like having a great and robust Pinot Grigio/Gris, a clean Chardonnay or a mouth-watering Sauvignon Blanc; a slamming Viognier isn't bad either.

Unoaked wines are usually fermented and aged in stainless steel tanks or lined concrete vats, though sometimes they might be briefly put into oak barrels.  With this technique, none of the wine's true flavor is affected by wood.

Conclusion

Ultimately, there really is no conclusion over which is better; it all depends on the palate of the drinker.  Most of the chardonnays that I have ever consumed use oak in the process; I am quite sure that Kendall Jackson Grand Reserve Chardonnay and Beringer Napa Valley Chardonnay use it.  However, the Lapis Luna Chardonnay that I am loving right now.  I would say that you should try both and make your own decision.

Next up – sulfites!

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