Many wine lovers imagine that wines embellished with the characteristics of wood are nestled in dark, musty cellars, slowly maturing inside expensive oak barrels.
This image, while nostalgic, is most likely a reality only to those who cross over into the more expensive price range. However, because of winemaking innovations, it’s possible to find wood characteristics in lower-priced wines.
Australia is a leader in revolutionary winemaking techniques, and Australians tend to take a pragmatic approach to their craft. For instance, using mechanical harvesters instead of hand-picking grapes allows vineyards to grow and harvest more grapes. Or if you want to soften, add texture and stabilize the tannin in wines, take a shortcut and simply throw a few oak chips into the vat. Many of Australia’s thrifty, down-to-earth solutions trickle down to the consumer by offering the flavor and characteristics of wood at a fraction of the price.
Other options that bring the influence of wood to the wine is the use of oak staves dipped into the vat or large bags filled with oak chips that steep in the vat much like a tea bag. Another alternative, which few winemakers use or admit to using, is pouring a liquid with oak flavor into the vat.
So is this modernized technique a benefit to the wine consumer or another process making the romance of winemaking a thing of the past? Well, I love buttery, $30 Chardonnays that have fermented in expensive wood barrels, but I certainly enjoy the simple yet clean $7 bottles that just had a few oak “tea bags” dipped in the vat.
- 2006 Penfolds Rawson Retreat Chardonnay, Australia (about $8, retail)
- 2006 Toasted Head Chardonnay, California (about $14, retail)
- 2007 Jacob’s Creek Chardonnay, Australia (about $9, retail)
- 2007 Yalumba Y Series Chardonnay, Australia (about $12, retail)
- 2005 Gary Farrell Chardonnay, California (about $44, retail)
- 2005 Cambria Katherine’s Chardonnay, California (about $32, retail)
- 2006 Ferrari Carano Chardonnay, California (about $22, retail)
- 2005 Kistler Carneros Chardonnay, California (about $52, retail)