Less is more! The fight for less oak in white wine

By / Magazine / August 30th, 2016 / 13

Just a hunch, but I’m pretty convinced that what started out as a trickle of less-oaked and unoaked wines a few years back has today turned into a torrent. For any number of reasons, consumers — not to mention winemakers, viticulturists and consultants — are turning their backs on the big oaky whites and reds of yesteryear. And the implications are far reaching.

“So what’s driving the change?” you might ask.

In a recent Drinks Business article, Viña Maipo head winemaker Max Weinlaub mused on the move to fresher, lower alcohol, wines. “Now, I am looking for the purest expression of a variety or region. For many years we were confused, using too much oak and I don’t know why — maybe because of the American palate? But now even Robert Parker is changing. Everyone is looking for fresher, lower alcohol wines with less oak.”

The barrel enjoys a long and glorious history that pre-dates Roman times. Although, as often they did, the Romans would have had us believe it was they who came up with the idea. However, it was more likely the Gauls who first started putting liquor of some kind into wood, which was more robust and easier to transport than pottery, even if not always palatable. And occasionally (as in when Yew was used) even poisonous. The barrel really came into its own much later, as a means to actually age wine, rather than to just transport it for centurion consumption.

In the modern era it pays to go back a few decades to get to the bottom of oak’s once seemingly unstoppable commercial popularity, specifically to the ascent of varietal wines, most notably Chardonnay.

Overall, we can thank Australia for putting oak on the map (even perhaps before California), and in a good way. Those of us of a certain age can remember when Aussie Chard was all the rage, right up there with K-Cars and the Swatch. That would be right before the arrival of Chilean Merlot. (Or was that actually Carmenère?)

Imagine a whole generation of wine drinkers weaned on Wyndham’s Bin 222. Yes, it was a fact of life. The reality is that Australian Chardonnay parlayed its way onto the public palate a good 20 years before people discovered Aussie Shiraz — and the ensuing Yellow Tail juggernaut. And in doing so it introduced almost the entire Pepsi generation to wine culture.

James Ceccato from Berton Vineyards

James Ceccato from Berton Vineyards

Some would suggest, much like the national character, those full-fruited, enthusiastically oaked red and whites were truly emblematic of the Australian style of the era: no nonsense, not exactly subtle, indeed, in your face — and (obviously) very much what the consumer wanted.

Over the years, times and tastes have changed. Those once-neophyte consumers have grown up, broadened their palates, sharpened their sense of sophistication and often gone looking elsewhere. And as did every other major New World region, from Chile to (well, almost) California, Australia changed tack.

Much of that new found sophistication can also be linked to the extraordinary blossoming of a mainstream North American food culture. While food and wine dinners and chi-chi grazes may today be all the rage, 20 or 30 years ago they were still a rarity, along with wines by the glass, screwcaps and more. Then there was that crazy idea of actually suggesting on the menu which wine you might want to drink with the dish. Whoever thought that one would ever fly? The end result is a vibrant community of drinkers and diners eager to explore and discover.

If there was one trend that signalled a shift in the omnipotence of oak, it was the arrival of ABC, as in “Anything But Chardonnay.” ABC wasn’t really a wide-ranging purge, with the world’s most widely planted white as victim. It was more about the consumer confusing toast and vanilla as being indicative of the varietal’s flavours; and becoming tired of them.

That new generation of drinkers and diners eventually came to realize, as their horizons widened, that those oaky Chardonnays weren’t always quite as food friendly as they once appeared. At which point the marketers — those same focus group worshippers who have gone on to sell wine like Cola (or Fosters) — must have thrown up their hands in horror.

When the Australians realized (all power to them) that they might soon have a wee export problem on their hands, they went right to work. They understood that the loyal consumer they’d helped create was yearning for greener pastures and, more to the point, often heading right to the Old World — where oak, in general, has always been handled with somewhat more care and respect.

Winemakers also noticed a marked change when, in the early 1990s, Australian exports shifted to the UK. They discovered that palates accustomed to drinking Chablis and Burgundy sought a more refined style. That kick-started a move to explore cooler regions and plant Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in areas such as Yarra, Mornington, Adelaide Hills and elsewhere. The Aussies nurtured awareness of their cooler climate regions, established and emerging. In doing so they actually did a lot of folks a favour. Across the New World, producers have responded with leaner styles, frequently with more used than new oak, and a greater emphasis on terroir, all of which has really helped to redefine the variety’s once tired image.

However, the subtext here could be “The grass is always greener …” Once dyed-in-the-wool Chardonnay drinkers started to gaze afar, they found plenty to tempt, especially those with more adventuresome palates.

What else has been driving the move to no oak? Here’s a thought: The Riesling Revolution. Oh, is it finally here? You might well ask. But after all these years of wishing and hoping, it actually looks that way. And some of the reasons might well surprise you. Can it be that consumers (and liquor boards) have finally figured out that Riesling isn’t necessarily sweet? Perhaps that’s part of the deal.

More likely, however, is that drinkers faced with stricter drinking and driving legislation (especially in key markets such as the UK) have caught on to the fact that most Riesling clocks in at significantly lower alcohol levels: cue the perfect party wine, where you can drink more responsibly — or at least appear to. Add to that the reality that Riesling is being made increasingly in drier styles and remains the most versatile of food pairing varieties.

In BC, where fresh seafood predominates for much of the year, aromatic and dry whites rule the roost: score yet another point for the no/low oak crowd. Except for certain, specific pairings — such as lobster and cream sauces, seafood rarely fares well with oaked wines. And the proof, as they say, is in the pudding. BC chefs and sommeliers have made themselves heard and wineries have gone to work.

Of the top 10 white wines sold in BC, no less than four are cool climate blends that almost without exception use no oak at all. Evaporated too is the notion of the white wine ‘cocktail’: the idea that any grapes that didn’t make the grade all wound up in the house blend. Today’s blends are often quite layered and complex.

Even in red wines the shift has been significant. Seafood with smart (no or low oak) red wine pairings are also becoming more the norm. Who doesn’t now at least consider matching a cautiously oaked Pinot Noir with Sockeye or Coho? The diner who is happy to throw the “white wine with fish” convention out the window is often as not well rewarded. Chances are that those reds are also significantly lower in alcohol.

Even in the post-Parker era, there is no single, discernible factor in the trend away from oak and towards lower alcohol wines. It’s more a combination of ideas and market shifts. Nor will there ever be — nor should there be — a parting of the ways with oak, which still very much has its place. Though maybe not quite in the way it used to.


a low to no oak odyssey around the world


Berton Metal Label Vermentino 2013, South East Australia ($19.99)

One of an increasing number of Italian varieties popping up in Oz: bright, tropical notes on top, followed by a crisp and clean tropical palate with pear and citrus notes with a juicy close.

Georges Vigoureux Gouleyant 2014, AOC Cahors ($15.99)

Floral, cassis and flint on the nose, followed by a well structured palate with redcurrant and mineral hints wrapped in approachable tannins. Made by flying winemaker Paul Hobbs, “Gouleyant” means “yummy,” which it definitely is.

Haywire Gamay Noir 2014, Okanagan Valley VQA ($26.90)

A lighter styled Gamay but with plenty of personality, this easy sipping, concrete aged red yields bight red berry fruits such as raspberry and cherry up front, followed by a pure fruited palate of savoury raspberry and easy tannins.

Jean Maurice Raffault Rouge 2013, AOC Chinon, Loire Valley ($21.99)

This Cabernet Franc, aged in large oak casks, suggests bright red berries up front, followed by a savoury mid palate with mocha and peppery notes wrapped in lively acidity. The perfect match for cold cuts, tuna or cheese.

Joseph Mellot La Chatellenie 2014, AOC Sancerre, Loire Valley ($35)

A distinctly flinty streak, thanks to the flint and silica based soils that typify the best sites in Sancerre. Fresh citrus and stony notes up front, followed by a keenly focused, mineral, fresh palate and lingering close.

Monster Vineyards Skinny Dip Chardonnay 2014, Okanagan Valley VQA ($17.90)

Crisp and clean, un-oaked, all stainless steel fermented with apple and citrus wrapped in fresh acidity. Excellent with oysters on the half shell.

Monte del Fra Ca de Magro 2012, Veneto ($19.95)

A multiplicity of indigenous varieties (Garganega, Trebbiano Toscano, Tocai, Cortese [Fernanda], Chardonnay and Riesling) result in floral and honey notes, followed by a basket of lemons, peaches and other orchard fruits, wrapped in a luscious, zingy package.

My Karp 2014, Mosel Valley ($20.99)

Fruit forward, off-dry Riesling lives up to its fun label (a play on the family name) with citrus on top followed by luscious lemon/lime and stone fruit notes wrapped in a juicy, refreshing palate. Think spicy Asian plates, chili prawns or roast pork.

Pares Balta ‘B’ Blanc de Pacs 2013, Penedes ($18)

An edgy drop, with orchard fruits on the nose, apple palate, bright acidity, a quick hit of minerality and a dry, clean end. Perfect for spring sipping into summer. Certified organic too.

Ormarine Picpoul de Pinet 2013, Languedoc ($13.99)

A perfect patio sipper, and yes, the obscure south of France grape variety does have something to do with chickens, somewhere along the way. Bright, citrus and apple toned, light and lively, it’s a slam dunk for white fish.

Romain Duvernay Cotes du Rhône Blanc 2013, Rhône ($20)

Floral, peach and citrus on the nose followed by a very clean palate, with stone fruit, apricot and slight mineral hints before a crisp finish.

Trivento Amado Sur 2012, Mendoza ($14.99)

Torrontes with a bit of a twist, a splash of Viognier and Chardonnay blended in, that just makes a charming but sometimes understated grape just a little less ordinary. Lemon and mineral on the nose, followed by a surprisingly textured mouthfeel with melon and zesty notes.


Tim Pawsey (aka The Hired Belly) continues to document the dynamic evolution of the Vancouver and BC food scene both on line and in print, as he has for over 30 years, for respected outlets such as the Vancouver Courier, North Shore News and Where Vancouver magazine. Follow him at hiredbelly.com and facebook.com/TheHiredBelly.

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