A couple of weeks ago, I got a call from the folks who create content for Publix Grape Magazine, a free newsletter with wine tips and recommendations from the grocery chain’s extensive list of available wines.
For those who don’t know Publix, they kind of rule the roost in terms of the grocer action in the Southeastern U.S., employing over 150,000 people across more than 1,000 stores, and registering sales in excess of $25 billion (yes, with a B) annually.
The creative side of Publix Grape wanted to know if I’d be interested in writing an overview of oak aging for the Spring edition of the magazine, including its pluses, minuses and the science behind it.
“Absolutely,” I told them, and not just because I thought it would be entertainingly ironic for me to be published in both Playboy.com and Publix grape, two outlets that have got to serve almost opposite ends of the Liberal/Conservative constituency. “In fact, this is spookily serendipitous because I’d just sat down at my computer to draft up a blog article I wanted to call ‘In Defense Of Oak’!”
Combine that eerie coincidence with the fact that I hadn’t contributed to Publix Grape in what seemed like forever, and I couldn’t pass it up. And as I penned that Publix piece, I had a particularly personal realization reinforced (and no, it’s not that I love consonance). Namely, despite the fact that my subjectively favorite wines in all of the world (Mosel Rieslings) are un-oaked, I rather enjoy oak in a lot wines.
Okay, maybe that was more of a confession than a realization, given the gestalt of the modern wine media and geekier wine circles.
But it doesn’t change the fact that the oak-perception pendulum when it comes to wine might have swung just a bit too far lately…
I don’t want to rob from myself and restate anything from the upcoming Publix piece here, but the bottom line is that I do not hate oak; I hate the overuse of oak. While I marvel intellectually at reds like the 2010 Bodega Tacuil RD that don’t see even one gram of oak, chip, or stave, I can certainly find guilty pleasure in Franciscan’s Cuvee Sauvage Chardonnay given the right situation and food pairing action. Sometimes, you can push the oak to the upper limits, but have enough fruit and acidity to more-or-less balance everything out despite it all. Those are usually the wines about which I fond myself saying things like, “damn, doesn’t seem like it was aged for that many months in new barrels…”
The right amount of oak contact not only rounds out a wine and contributes to its aging potential exudes a sense of sophistication, lifts a wines aromatics, and adds a sense of the exotic in the touches of sweet spices. It’s like sprinkling just the right amount of baking spices onto the apple pie – too little and it doesn’t do much, too much and it dominates and therefore belittles the overall experience.
Now, there’s a big caveat I need to add here: we still see wines with way too much oak getting way too many points and way too many favorable reviews in the modern media, despite what I’d call a clear trend away from oak in the minds of sommeliers, wine geeks, a lot of wine media/critics and some of the general wine buying public.
In the case of red wines particularly, I’ve noticed that some (okay, many) wines that I would consider way over the threshold of good taste and judgment when it comes to oak use have received much higher praise from critics than I would’ve bestowed myself. Now… why is that?
I have a theory. And I suspect I will get flamed for it, especially since I don’t want to name names in the people or the wines. Now, before you print people get your wine-reviewing panties all in a twist, please note that I’ve got both on- and off-line critics in mind here, okay? Also, if you’re uptight about me not naming names, I can respect that view, but only so long as it takes you to contact any winemaker anywhere and ask them if over-oaked wines get higher scores than they deserve, at which point they will tell you Yes, give you five examples in confidence, and then you can go shove it. Personally, I’ve told at least 25 winemakers on different continents what I’m about to tell you and not one of them disagreed with it, so the anecdotal evidence is strong with the Force.
Anyway, I suspect that many of those critics taste what I would consider a sh*tload of wines at a single sitting. My strong suspicion is that those critics only get to spend a few minutes with each one, give it a rating and a tasting note, and then move on, often without ever coming back to the previous wines. If they did get back to those wines, they’d notice that given twenty minutes or so in the glass, those over-oaked reds will start to smell like bad maple syrup; instead of getting better in the glass as they develop, those wines get worse. But those critics don’t ever smell that development, because they’ve already moved on, gearing up for the next flight of wines to review in that tasting session.
That’s my guess – I’ve yet to confirm it with any hard evidence. And I might just have my head entirely up my own ass about all of this. But if I’m close to the mark on my guess, then I’d consider the situation a real shame, because reviewing a wine too perfunctorily is doing a big disservice to the people who show up to read what you have to say.
Oh, and one more caveat: while it’s true that some great, great red wines also go through a maple-syrup-oak phase in the glass (Tim Mondavi’s excellent Continuum, for example, does this in its youth), they do it far more quickly, demonstrate far more complexity, and the syrup notes when they do show up are far more pleasing than they are cloying.
Another possibility is that those critics are giving the wines the benefit of the doubt, that they will come out of a temporary maple phase like the better, more complex, tighter-in-their-youth oaked reds (personally, I’ve yet to encounter an over-oaked wine that does that). Yet another is that those critics just really, really like oak. And finally, they might actually think that type of maple syrup action is pleasurable, in which case I’d encourage them to visit the Northeast more, so they can get their hands on maple syrup that is actually good.
How about you? Are you down on oak in your wines, or down with oak in your wines?