‘Oaky’ Is Not a Four-Letter Word

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Don"t hate Chardonnays just because you"re supposed to

By Josh Perilo

Sometimes I don"t even realize I"m doing it until I"m standing in the middle of the supermarket, my voice rising incrementally and bleating: “I don"t care how many viewers it has, I think Family Guy is the un-funniest show that has ever aired on national television!

Do I really care all that much about Family Guy? No. But for some reason, whenever there"s a consensus about one popular thing being plunked down into a solid “good or “bad category, this raises red flags for me and I"ll usually take the opposite position, just to try and even out the score.

So it is with wine as well. I"ll be the first one to admit that I am not immediately drawn to a Chardonnay that has been either fermented or aged excessively in oak. This was a style that caught on in the late 1970s and grew in popularity through the 1980s until the market was saturated with this style of Chard in the 1990s. Then came the backlash.

It started with wine geeks who, rightfully, hated the cheaply made “oaky Chards that tasted like a stick of butter nailed to a two-by-four. These wines were often not even made using oak barrels, which are very expensive. Instead, oak chips were (and still are) dumped into a stainless steel vat of wine to add oaky tones. Sometimes even sawdust is used.

These are terrible wines. You will get no argument from me about that. However, there has been hysteria over the last decade or so about Chardonnays that have any oak flavor at all. Any use of oak is looked down upon and thought of as bourgeoisie. This is an incredibly ignorant point of view that has, unfortunately, become the norm now in the oversaturated world of faux wine connoisseurs.

Oak is good. Oak can be amazing, actually. It takes more talent to use oak correctly in winemaking than not using it at all. And when done the right way, the end product is breathtaking.

For a tremendous example of what the new world can offer along the lines of well-made, oak-laden Chardonnay, look to the Arcadian Vineyard “Sleepy Hollow Chardonnay 2005 ($33.99 at Astor Wines, 399 Lafayette St. at East 4th Street, 212-674-7500) from California"s Central Coast. This wine is both fermented and aged in French oak barrels. The result isn"t an over-the-top, wet particleboard smackdown. Instead, it starts on the nose with ripe oranges and notes of French bread. On the palate, the super ripe citrus continues with pineapple through the middle. The end has flavors of honey, white pepper and even a hint of caramel. This vino is a meal all by itself, but would be the ultimate match-up for lobster and drawn butter.

The old world has plenty of good, oaky Chardonnay to bring to the table, as well. The Chateau Fuissé Pouilly-Fuissé “Les Brûlés 2005 ($65 at Sherry Lehman, 505 Park Ave. at East 59th Street, 212-838-7500) from Burgundy is a touch lighter, but no less intense. There are massive amounts of ginger and crème brûlée scents. The palate is all about vanilla, white peach and spice. The finish has hints of cinnamon, allspice and quince. This wine is a masterpiece.

So break off from the mob and open your mind. Try tasting a truly great wine that is made, if not to please the masses, then at least to please those who appreciate expert craftsmanship.

josh@pennilessepicure.com

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