Oeno Files

A Stupid Question for a Sommelier

New Oak, old oak, no oak: Campagne’s Cyril Frechier demystifies chardonnay.

March 24, 2010

Cyril says: do not give up on chardonnays before you’ve tried a good one.

From 1990 to 2007, Cyril Frechier, now wine and spirits director at Campagne and Cafe Campagne, was the wine director and GM of Rover’s restaurant in Madison Valley. Born and raised in France, he honed his skills attending wine master classes in London. “The exhilaration and inspiration received from these lectures,” says Cyril, have never left him.

Here, a stupid question for Cyril Frechier.

You hear a lot about chardonnays being oaky or not oaky. What does that mean exactly?
Since Roman times, sturdiness, watertight structure, and flavor-enhancing compounds have made oak the favorite wood type for shipping and storing wine the world over. The more relevant and obvious benefit to the consumer are oak’s organoleptic (I love that word) properties.

I’m glad you love that word, Cyril, but I should probably cut in and explain that “organoleptic” refers to the wine’s sensory properties—taste, color, odor, etc. Alright, carry on.
Oaky flavors are commonly described as vanilla, coconut, burnt toast, caramel, tobacco, spicy, cedar, and clove. Some white-grape varietals are natural partners for these flavors; chardonnay chief among them. Reds that can handle oak’s sometimes overbearing flavors include cabernet sauvignon, merlot, syrah/shiraz, tempranillo and, to a lesser extent, pinot noir.

How “oaky” a wine is depends on the provenance, brand, size, manufacturing requirements, and percentage of new barrels that are used. Old barrels can be neutral, while new barrels will impart 100-percent oakiness.

Okay, back to chardonnay. If I don’t like oaky chardonnays, does that mean I won’t like any chard?
As in most things in life, balance and harmony is key. Excessive oak flavors will obliterate chardonnay’s more delicate floral, herbal, and citrusy characteristics. But oak, when well handled, can add layers of flavors and complexity that unoaked chardonnays rarely display.

But how can I tell, looking at the label, if a chard is oaky?
Look on the bottle’s front and back label. Any mention of oak, vanilla, toasted flavors, etc is a dead giveaway. Words like Reserve, Special Cuvée, and Estate can point to a fancier, more expensive bottling in which new oak barrels may have been used.

Alright, homework time. Can you suggest two chards—one unoaked, one oaked—to compare side by side?
Here are two from the Willamette Valley in Oregon: Chehalem 2007 Inox Chardonnay takes its name from the abbreviation of the French word for stainless steel. This wine is 100 percent stainless-steel fermented. It’s light, crisp, fresh, and delicious. Ponzi Vineyards 2006 Chardonnay Reserve: A good example of how oak can enhance chardonnay fruit when in the hands of a deft winemaker.

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