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When it comes to wine, opinions vary on oak

POSTED: August 3, 2010 11:30 p.m.

Oak or no oak? That is one of the ongoing debates in the wine world.

I was reminded of that discussion recently when I received two California chardonnays — one unoaked, the other lightly oaked. So I decided to go straight to the sources and ask "why?"

Greg Winter is the winemaker for Valley of the Moon, a small-production winery that’s part of Sonoma County’s Heck Family of wines. Those include Korbel sparkling wines and brandy, Kenwood, Lake Sonoma, Valley of the Moon and a new, high-profile line of wines named Pininfarina.

Winter produced an unoaked chardonnay in the 2008 vintage from vineyards along Sonoma’s famed Russian River, noted for its fine chardonnays. I asked him the big question. Why unoaked?

The ’08 is Winter’s third vintage of unoaked chard and it benefited immensely from a favorable Wine Spectator score. "That cleaned out inventory pretty quickly," he said. "Maybe we’ll have a bigger production next year." The ’08 production was small — 2,000 cases.

There’s almost a delicate nature to wine that’s not been bolstered by barrel fermentation, barrel aging or malo-lactic fermentation.

"I like this style," Winter said, adding, "My wife’s a winemaker and this is the first wine she asks for."

Winter picks no fights with those who oak their wines.

"We’re not going to unseat the American palate ... that seems to like big, oaky chards with waves of vanilla spilling out," he said. But he’s producing a more traditional French style of chardonnay — Burgundian, white burgundies, as you probably know, are produced from the chardonnay grape.

"There are not a lot of new barrels used in Burgundy," he said. "With the cool Russian River climate and a long growing season, we get great flavor development and retain the acidity."

He cites citrus and stone fruit flavors in the unoaked wine — "nectarine, not peach."

Philip Zorn, co-founder of Waterstone Wines takes a different tack. Waterstone, which is a negociant operation, buys fruit and uses other winery properties to process their wines. They recently released a 2008 chardonnay, lightly oaked, from the noted Carneros region. Carneros, like the Russian River, is known for its full-bodied, well-constructed chardonnays.

"We barrel ferment in oak that’s 3 to 5 years old, all French oak," Zorn told me. That means that unlike with new barrels, the oak extraction into the wine is there, but it’s minimal.

"We want to highlight the fruit, and get those flavors out," he said. He works to preserve that trademark green-apple flavor in his wine. Waterstone produced its first vintage in 2001.

How does Zorn view the big, heavily oaked wines? He hedges.

"That’s not my style of wine, but I respect anybody’s style," he said. He likes the hint of oak.

How is the ’08 vintage showing? "This one is showing very well. I like it a lot," he said.

The two wines are Valley of the Moon 2008 Russian River Unoaked Chardonnay and Waterstone 2008 Carneros Chardonnay. Both are priced in the $16-$20 range, and both were made in small quantities. I’ve sampled both and recommend them — for their differences, and their commonality. Each is a very good, well-made wine.

Good hunting!

New online source for wine reviews

A couple of months ago I found a new presence in my e-mail. It was a message from a then-new wine feature called winereporter.com. I opened it, carefully, of course. I am very low-tech and fear demons and devils lurking in the electronic ether.

But this turned out to be a compact, informative and most enjoyable online addition to my wine library.

Offered once a week, it gives concise reviews of hundreds of wines; reviews that are boiled down from many of the major wine publications. The reviews are broken down by country of origin; want to read only about wines of Argentina, click on that country’s listing and have at it. Reviews are concise, and provide good, usable information about wines that range throughout the price spectrum, and are, for the most part, readily available.

I e-mailed Frank Jerome, editor of winereporter.com, and asked some questions. Here’s what he had to say.

"The Wine Reporter was launched on March 22, 2010. The underlying philosophy is to assist (in providing) the public with reviews of generally available, well-rated wines from the major wine publications so that they do not have to wade through thousands of reviews of overpriced limited (availability) wines or poorly rated wines."

I like that philosophy.

"The Wine Reporter is free," Jerome said. "The revenue model is to sell advertising once the circulation builds to a level to justify advertising sales. This is down the road."

T Wine Rreporter does not select wines with production or distribution of fewer than 1,000 cases. I like that, too. I hate writers who bloviate about wines we never will see here. The site also weights wine quality with price.

And something else I like: "We are always available to respond to readers’ inquiries."

To sign up for The Wine Reporter go to www.winereporter.com and register.

Randall Murray is a Gainesville-area resident. Have a question about wine?
He can be contacted at murrwine@aol.com. His column appears on the first Wednesday of the month.

 



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