All About Oaked Chardonnay

By / Magazine / October 28th, 2009 / 3

There are two kinds of wine lovers in the world. Which camp do you call home?

First, there are those who are fed up after a lifetime of drinking cheap Chardonnay at office parties and baby showers. Their cri de coeur is “No more! No more oaked Chardonnay. Give me fresh fruit character — or give me death.” You know you belong to this group if you get a headache merely by looking at the label of Lindemans Bin 65. After years of being a voice in the wilderness, this camp is now ascendant. At restaurants and bars, Sauvignon Blanc is replacing Chardonnay as the white wine of involuntary reflex. Although sleek white is still one of the most planted varietals, wineries increasingly turn to stainless steel vats in order to keep their wine light and juicy. Oak is out.

The second group of wine lovers is the minority that keeps the faith, holding a torch for oak-heavy numbers. Let the rest of the world order something that won’t strong-arm the shrimp cocktail; this diehard remnant likes their white wine plump and indulgent. I am proud to count myself among this group. Proud and defiant. I like my Chardonnay so thick that you can twist it around a spoon and spread it over toast. In my view, well-oaked Chardonnay fuses the two opposites of gravity and weightlessness into one dynamic package. Unfashionable though it may be, a wine contaminated with oak — a dirty Chardonnay — is the pinnacle of the winemaker’s art.

Some of the effects of oak are not controversial. Barrel aging clarifies and stabilizes wine without resorting to filtration or the use of additives. Sitting in a barrel also gradually exposes the wine to oxygen, a process which quickens maturation but keeps it graceful. However, the primary effect of oak is to leech flavours from the wood into the wine. Who doesn’t love coconut, vanilla, clove and tea? Oils and phenols from the barrel replicate these flavours in the wine. This gives the winemaker tremendous power to increase the complexity of the wine, but at the risk of pitting the oak in competition against the grape’s natural flavours. Such power is open to abuse, usually when mega-wineries use cruddy barrels or wood chips to concoct a beverage that looks like wine but tastes like cotton candy melting on a radiator.

A decent winemaker has many tools to manage the way oak influences her wine. Large barrels decrease the surface area of wood relative to the volume of wine, muting the oak’s power. New oak imparts stronger flavours than used barrels; many wine producers prefer barrels that have been broken in for a year or two. American oak contains more lactones, imparting a coconut flavour, but French oak is considered more elegant. Finally, there is time: a bottle with a great deal of oak requires time to age in the cellar, so the diverse flavours can integrate.

 


A technique for handling oak employed frequently for premium Chardonnay is barrel fermentation. Usually, grapes must be fermented in large stainless steel vats and only put into barrels once that messy process has been completed. But barrel fermenting a wine means that the grapes are placed in the barrel at an earlier stage, before the yeast has finished converting all the juice’s sugar into alcohol. In this way, the active yeast mingles with the phenols seeping out of the wood. God bless their tiny fungoid souls, the yeast set to work digesting these oaky chemical compounds along with the grape sugar. Contrary to what you might think, yeast-bitten phenols are highly desirable: they are milder and integrate more smoothly with the rest of the wine. The result is a bottle that has buttery richness without sacrificing the grapes’ natural élan. A perfect example of the barrel-fermented style is Yattarna Chardonnay from the Australian winery Penfolds. This is the one of the New World’s premium Chardonnays — it was designed to be the white wine equivalent of Penfolds’ legendary red, Grange.

Yattarna encapsulates both the beauty of strong oak influence and the increasing pressure to use less of it. The earliest vintages were aged entirely in small new oak barrels for as long as 18 months. The result is one of the most interesting white wines I have ever tasted. For example, the 1997 vintage ($77 in 2000) is so creamy that it surpasses “butter” as a comparator and tastes more like tzatziki. It swirls with powerful aromas of peach pie, lemon rind and spearmint with the top-note of slightly sour yogurt that characterizes some of the best Burgundy. The robust Australian fruit is strong enough to support the oak, and the oak gives the fruit longevity: as it ages, the juice acquires texture and seems to caramelize in the bottle. Outstanding.

However, as Penfolds has continued to refine Yattarna, they are dialing back the oak to respond to the changing demand of the market. The winemaker Kym Schroeter calls it “part of the evolution of the style.” For instance, he made the 2004 Yattarna with no new oak whatsoever; it was aged for less than a year in one- and two-year-old barrels. The 2004 still has the distinctive Yattarna profile of yogurt, minerality and a grapefruit-like acidity, but it lacks the prodigious generosity and richness of earlier vintages. The leaner Yattarna is delicious, but not so unusual when compared with a decent Chardonnay from Montrachet or Russian River. The vintages from the mid and late 1990s, on the other hand, were something unique and distinctly Australian: a wine that cranked the dial all the way up to 11.

 


Lighter Chardonnays may be in fashion, but I think I can smell a little change in the wind. The Canadian industry is still abuzz with the results of the recent re-enactment of the famed 1976 judgment in Paris that established the reputation of California’s wine industry. The rematch was held in the Montreal restaurant La Colombe in early 2009. Ten critics, tasting blind, preferred a spoiler, Ontario’s Le Clos Jordanne 2005 Claystone Terrace Chardonnay, over an upper crust of estates from Burgundy and California. The fascinating fact underlying this victory is that Le Clos Jordanne favours the dirty style, and this won out over some restrained Chardonnays, like the Joseph Douhin 2006 Clos Des Mouches from Beaune, or the Louis Jadot 2005 Clos de Malte from Santenay. One judge praised Le Clos Jordanne for its “restrained opulence.” I take this as a codeword for “gorgeous use of oak.”

As news of the “Judgment of Montreal” hit the press in the spring of 2009, the hundreds of bottles of Le Clos Jordanne that had been loitering for months in Ontario and Quebec wine stores disappeared overnight. Wine lovers do love a bandwagon. Time will tell what kind of long-term influence Le Clos Jordanne’s oaky style will exert on the Canadian palate. However, a wine lover who really wants to explore the mystery of oak would be wise not to overlook one of the other great winemakers on the Beamsville Bench, Daniel Lenko.

Daniel Lenko Winery not only offers the oldest Chardonnay vines in Ontario (they just reached their 50th birthday), but his portfolio offers an unprecedented number of variations on barrel aging: the 2004 Old Vines Chardonnay with American Oak ($22.95), the 2004 Old Vines Chardonnay with French Oak ($29.95), and the 2005 Signature Chardonnay with extended aging in French Oak ($39.95). Sampling these wines together is a crash-course in advanced winemaking. The ancient vines produce an intense fruit that can sustain a lot of oak. The Signature Chardonnay has so much wood in it that you could use it for kindling; it is the only white wine that I’ve encountered with a bouquet that actually smells like chocolate fudge.

What I appreciate most about winemakers like Lenko is that he is willing to experiment. Chardonnay is an unusually malleable grape and it can’t conform to just one kind of beauty. Sometimes you want something thin, clean and dignified. But sometimes, you have to have the dirty.

 


90 Henry of Pelham Barrel Fermented Chardonnay 2006, Ontario ($19.95)

A perfect example of the Chardonnay grape in harmony with oak influences, so that there is spicy complexity and a rich body without sacrificing freshness and vivacity. Long caramel finish. Will only improve over 2 to 3 years.

89 KWV “Cathedral Cellars” Chardonnay 2006, South Africa ($14.95)

A creamy wine with the oak-touched colour of a yellow highlighter. It leans toward the chunky side, with baked apple, peaches and burnt sugar. There’s a hint of the distinctive South African smokiness and nutmeg to add extra personality.

90 Daniel Lenko Old Vines Chardonnay (American Oak) 2004, Ontario ($22.95)

Even after almost 5 years of aging, the strong oak predominates, marbling the wine with butterscotch and fried banana. Though it has tremendous complexity and a clean, perfumed nose, this is not a wine for the faint of heart. A bruiser.

87 Santa Carolina Barrica Selection Chardonnay 2007, Chile ($14.95)

This is a rare find — an inexpensive bottle that’s been barrel fermented in small oak barriques. The ripe South American fruit gives it a dense mango-like profile. The oak is a little clumsy but certainly well-intentioned. A spicy variety of Chardonnay. Great value.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Matthew Sullivan lives in Toronto. Besides writing about wine, he is a lawyer practicing public law, which helps pay the bar tab. His weekly wine column for Precedent Magazine can be found at www.lawandstyle.ca/shortcellar.

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