Oaked White Wine: Dated, Timeless, or on a Comeback?

published Jan 21, 2010
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The late 80’s and 90’s were boom years for big, oaky white wines, especially Chardonnay. Over the past decade, it has been all about unoaked whites, with Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc taking center stage. Is oaked white wine still a timeless classic? Largely outdated? Or is it primed for a strong comeback? What are your views?

The Rise (and Fall) of Oaked White Wines

Oaked white wines were all the rage 10 to 15 years ago. All those creamy, spicy vanilla aromas and flavors were delicious. These wines made bold statements. What wasn’t there to like?

With the new millennial, cracks started to appear in Chardonnay’s dominant appeal. The voice of ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) drummed loud, as wine drinkers switched to crisp, unoaked Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Grigio, or ABC. Even though Chardonnay remained the number one selling white varietal wine in the US, we all seemed compelled to shun oaky whites in favor of lighter, unoaked wines.

While I absolutely love the plethora of unoaked white wines that are available from every wine producing country, I feel the need to defend the permanent place of oaked white wines. They can produce some of the most complex and age-worthy whites in the world. Think great white Burgundy, classic White Bordeaux, or traditional White Rioja. These wines are typically barrel fermented, as well as matured in small oak barrels. Other varieties that work well with oak include Viognier, Chenin Blanc and Pinot Gris, as well as blends such as whites from the Southern Rhône.

Oak and Wine

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Oak in wine is a complex subject, as there are many variations on the type, amount, and age of the oak used. Neutral and semi-aromatic grape varieties have the most affinity with oak, as there is less of a clash between the grape aromatics and the oak. Judiciously used, oak can add great complexity to a wine, enhance its structure and influence its ability to age.

Oak barrels are not cheap, especially new small barrels (called barriques). The larger and older the oak barrel, the less oak flavor imparted to the wine. The newer and smaller the barrel, the greater the flavor impact on the wine. How long the oak was seasoned, as well as the level of toast applied also makes a difference, as does the provenance of the oak such as French, American, Slavonian etc.

Given the cost of a new oak barrel, it is unlikely that most wines under $10 ever see the inside of an oak barrel. Here oak chips, blocks and staves, which are inserted into stainless steel tanks, provide an effective alternative when seeking to add some toasty, spicy oak flavors.

Winemakers spend an inordinate amount of time working out the correct oak regime for every wine. As someone once said to me, there is no such thing as an over-oaked wine, just an under-wined wine. Getting the match right is part of the winemaker’s craft of creating a balanced, harmonious and enjoyable wine.

Oaked White Wines and Food

Oaked white wines are excellent guests at the dinner table, pairing with a great array of dishes. They have a particular affinity for dishes with butter or cream. Try an oaked white with a cheese soufflé or gougères, smoked salmon or poached salmon with a caper butter sauce, veal chop, skate with black butter sauce, port tenderloin with applesauce, simple roast chicken or chicken with a mushroom cream sauce, as well as hard cheeses such as Gruyère, Provolone and Cheddar.

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Oaked White Wines to Try

Some favorites enjoyed recently include:

New World

2007 Smith & Shaw M3 Chardonnay, Adelaide Hills, Australia, $26 – Layered with aromas of nectarines, melon, fresh fig, toasty spices, vanilla and a hint of ginger. This is definitely one of my favorite Australian Chardonnays.

2007 Wild Oak By St. Francis Winery Chardonnay, Sonoma County $25. We enjoyed this back at Thanksgiving, and it remains a firm favorite. Full bodied, ripe, refreshing, with well-integrated toasty oak. Very good fruit concentration and long length.

2007 Tandem, Sangiacomo Vineyard Chardonnay, Sonoma Coast, $35 – an enticing medley of aromas woo the drinker – quince, clementine, nutmeg, clove. Though quite ripe, with generous alcohol, the flavors are bright and acidity lively, giving the wine great structure.

2008 Hamilton Russell Chardonnay, Walker Bay, South Africa $29 – I recently tasted this wine blind, and for a moment thought I was in Burgundy. Very elegant wine, with layers of ripe fruit that are enhanced by toasty oak notes.

2006 Montes Alpha, Chardonnay, Casablanca, Chile $25 – A big wine, with intense aromas and flavors. It is very well structured. Full bodied, with layers of ripe stone fruit, kumquat, fig, cream and vanilla. Very good palate weight and length.

2007 Penfolds Koonunga Hill, Chardonnay, South Eastern Australia, $12 – A find, and a great value gem. Refreshing with lots of vibrant fruit, sweet vanilla notes and pretty good palate concentration.

2007 Pellegrini Estate Vineyards Chardonnay, Long Island, New York $15 – An oaked style – rich, full-bodied with tropical fruit notes and toasty vanilla buttery notes. Good structure.

2006 Castello di Borghese Chardonnay, Long Island, New York $25 – An oaked style, restrained flavors of ripe apples and pears layered with notes of hazelnuts, toast and vanilla. Medium to full bodied.

2008 Seven Hills Winery Viognier, Columbia Valley, Washington, $20
Even though Viognier is a pretty aromatic variety, it does work well with oak. Rich, viscous with layers of ripe but bright fruit – creamy peach, apricot and tangerine. Spicy oak notes add complexity.

Old World

2006 Comte Armand Bourgogne Condemaine, AC Bourgogne, Burgundy $36 – white only a ‘regional’ Bourgogne Blanc wine, this wine has style and elegance.
Ripe fruit, crisp acidity, minerality and toasty vanilla notes are very well interwoven. Not a quaffing wine – best enjoyed at the table with roast chicken.

2006 Bret Bros La Soufrandière, AC Pouilly Vinzelles, Burgundy $35 – Seductive layers of ripe stone fruit, orange and tangerine and some lifted floral notes, refreshing with a smooth creamy palate and very long, lingering finish Toasty oak is well integrated. Expensive but worth it for a special occasion.

2007 Croix de Carbonnieux, Blanc, AC Pessac-Leognan, Bordeaux, $22 – A lovely wine. Classic white Bordeaux blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and Muscadelle. This wine spent about nine months in oak. Inviting aromas of ripe stone fruit, some citrus and well-integrated spice and toast. Refresing taste with lovely creamy notes on the palate. find this wine will become a favorite.

2004 Le Colombier de Château Brown Blanc, Pessac-Léognan, Bordeaux $28 – Another classic Bordeaux white blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon. Layered aromas of ripe fruit and spice. Medium bodied, this wine has vibrant fruit and a creamy texture that lingers well after the swallow.

1999 Gravonia Rioja Blanco, Lopez de Heredia, Rioja, Spain $25 – Yes, vintage 1999 and just released. Classic white Rioja is aged for quite a while. Already it has gained lovely complexity, earthy, spicy, homey notes, yet retains a great youthful vibrancy. A truly delicious wine.

2008 Muga Blanco, Rioja, Spain, $15 – A more simple (and great value), yet nevertheless delicious white Rioja. Aromas of ripe quince, grapefruit with hints of nutmeg and caradmon. Quite lively on the palate, with flavors of pear, cantaloupe, vanilla and sweet spice.

Until next week, enjoy some timeless oaked white wines.

Mary Gorman-McAdams, DWS, is a New York based wine educator, freelance writer and consultant. She hold the Diploma in Wine & Spirits from the Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET), and is a candidate in the Master of Wine Program.

(Images: Oak barrels courtesy of Tarransaud Tonnellerie (oak barrel cooperage); bottle shots courtesy of individual wineries.)