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Oak or Noak? Robin Rethinks the Issue
Copyright 2005 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved. Originally printed Sept. 12, 2005. For more information go to

Over the years, I've developed a bit of a knee-jerk negative response to the presence of perceptible oak in wine.

For a long time, this was a rational position, as way too many producers - particularly through the 1980s and 1990s - seemed to joyously over-oak every wine in sight, resulting in oceans of wine that reeked of raw wood, to the extent that pouring a glass of one created a sensation similar to that of walking into a house with freshly sanded floors.

This was particularly true in the New World, especially California and Australia, where a few wine makers became so notorious for their over-use of oak that you could anticipate what you'd find in the bottle without even needing to pull the cork.

But times and customs change, and it seems to me that - with a few notable exceptions - a certain order has returned to the wine universe as the pendulum swings back toward the center. Exposure to a lot of California "Rhone-style" wines at the recent MoCool tasting in Michigan reinforced my impression that there's plenty of complex, balanced wine coming from the Golden State that even a dyed-in-the-wool Europhile can love.

And speaking of that, even the most ardent oak-phobe has to acknowledge the ongoing presence of barrel rooms in the cellars beneath just about every European winery. From great Bordeaux to White Burgundy, many of Europe's greatest wine treasures wouldn't be the same without a kiss of oak. And from Italy's grand Riservas to the oak-nurtured Crianzas of Rioja, many of the European classics require oak, by custom and by law.

In short, the problem with oak has never been its use but its abuse. As I've said before, the Boston-area wine retailer Richard Eccleston captured the concept beautifully in the pithy one-liner, "Oak should be a spice, not a sauce."

Today's tasting offers a glimpse into the effect of oak on wine: I set up a "blind" tasting that pitted a white Burgundy from Saint-Aubin, produced by Michel Colin-Deleger, a maker with a reputation for a rather heavy hand with oak (at least by European standards), against a New Zelaand Chardonnay from Kim Crawford, a Marlborough producer who makes a virtue out of shunning oak entirely.

As it turned out, the test needn't have been done "blind." The spicy signature of oak and the richer golden color of the Deleger made it a no-brainer to distinguish it from the nothing-but-fruit Kim Crawford, even in plain, unmarked glasses.

But here's the interesting bit: Although I might have rated the Crawford well in isolation because of its crisp, pure fruit flavors, in a side-by-side comparison the relatively oaky French wine dominated the competition on the basis of aroma and flavor interest, richness and complexity. The New Zealand contender was a nice, fruity, refreshing quaff, but in that instinctive, subjective judgement process that leads you unerringly back to one particular bottle when it's time for a refill, the French wine was the easy winner.

So much for oak-phobia.


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