Open Your Mind About Oaky Chardonnays

Written by Josh Perilo on . Posted in Dining Our Town, Dining West Side Spirit, Eat & Drink, Our Town, The Penniless Epicure, West Side Spirit.


Don’t follow the mob when it comes to this aging process


I want to get it out on the table: I am just as confused as any of you are by many of the popular trends in wine today. And it isn’t just the often hilarious terminology (I could write an entire post on that), it’s the absolutism and lack of gray areas that seem to prevail in the wine community’s opinions on certain things.

It seems that once a high-profile wine professional has decided that he or she likes or doesn’t like something, the rest of the wine community follows like lemmings off a cliff. It is this very behavior that has turned me into a difficult, fussy contrarian.

I don’t set out to be difficult (though my wife may beg to differ, especially while we are watching TV). But for some reason, whenever there’s a consensus about one popular thing being plunked down into a solid “good” or “bad” category, it immediately raises red flags for me and I’ll usually take the opposite position, just to try and even the score.

Now, I will be the first 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 ’70s and grew in popularity through the ’80s, until the market was saturated with this style of chard in the ’90s. 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 a 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 bourgeois. 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 to not use it at all. 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 chardonnays, look to Arcadian Vineyard “Sleepy Hollow” Chardonnay 2006 ($36.99 at Astor Wines, 399 Lafayette St., at E. 4th St., 212-674-7500, astorwines.com) 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 particle board 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” 2007 ($60 at Sherry-Lehmann, 505 Park Ave., at 59th St., 212-838-7500, sherry-lehmann.com) 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, at least those for who appreciate expert craftsmanship.

Follow Josh on Twitter: @joshperilo.

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