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Overly Oaked - the New Norm?

We drink a lot of white wines, and especially in the AZ Summer. Most have some oak, BUT we just did a bunch of TJ's (Trader Joe's) whites, and ALL were horribly over-oaked. There was zero balance in any, and after a sip, we felt like we'd been hit in the mouth with a wet oak plank. They were all undrinkable.

Over the decades, I have seen many anti-oak threads here, and elsewhere. I never understood the aversion to oak. Now, I think that I do.

In our general wines, there is some oak, but it is in good balance to other aspects of the wine.

These three are horrible. I have never encountered such, but wonder if this is the "new trend" in less-expensive whites. If so, I am going back to my Montrachets, my Meursaults and my Chablis. This is flatly "over the top," and regardless of price, not at all enjoyable. I'd rather pay 5x the price, and have good, enjoyable and drinkable whites.

What is the point in doing a white wine, that tastes like a wet oak plank?

Now, I understand the issue, where I did not before.

Hunt, fighting with the OAK!

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  1. Another Zonie here on a white wine jag. Would you please tell us which TJ wines you tried? This information will save us all from the horrible experience you describe and make our summer temps a bit more bearable/civilized.

    9 Replies
    1. re: Sherri

      Two, that just floored us with the oak were:

      Wente, Riva Ranch, Arroyo Seco, Monterrey 2009 (Wente is based in Livermore)..

      The other was, Midnight, Aurora, Reserve White Wine, Paso Robles 2008, which is a Rhône blend, so it's 54% Viognier, 21% Marsanne, 17% Roussanne and 8% Grenache Blanc.

      While we love Arroyo Seco Chards, normally, and also many Rhône whites, these were just so overly oaked, as to be undrinkable, at least to us.

      I do not see any price tags, and the receipt is gone, so do not know the price-points of either.

      I hope that helps,

      Hunt

      1. re: Bill Hunt

        I'll make notes to take with me on my next foray to TJs. Thanks for your speedy response and honesty. Likely you've saved me time, $$$ and oak-mouth.

        1. re: Sherri

          You are most welcome.

          We do not buy much wine from TJ's, but do shop there for many other items. In this case, my wife was picking up several of those, and I asked here to grab some white wines. Now, she knows a lot of great whites, and from many continents, but nothing was familiar, so she relied on the salesperson. So far, not so good, but there are still some to go.

          Hunt

          1. re: Bill Hunt

            Yeah, I'd rather cook with oak than drink it.
            BTW, stay away from the *Oak Monster* by avoiding Toasted Head & J. Lohr.

            I haven't done a lot of recent vintage tastings of Chardonnay so this might be a good excuse to work on it. If you'd like to list the other wines you still have at the house, I'll check my notes or test them out myself if they're available in my area.
            Please let me know your preferred flavor profiles and price point.

            Also, my advice to y'all is when buying wines at our stores, ask if that particular Crew Member has tasted that specific vintage or knows someone who has and talk to them directly if possible. Don't take the "it's a top seller" or "I hear it's really good" line without getting more details if you can.

            Here's a real life example of what a customer asked for the other day:
            An organic, sustainably-farmed Sauvignon Blanc for under $5. Oy!
            Many of my local folk want the moon, they're just not willing to pay for it. ; )

            1. re: BigWoodenSpoon

              Yes, the Toasted Head Chards, are way over the top.

              Now, the J. Lohr Riverstone Chards, have been OK, but that is in the past.

              We normally pick up a handful of various FR Chards, from another local grocer, and enjoy those.

              For our "normal, house Chards," we are usually doing white Burgs, at several levels, and from several AOC's.

              Thanks for the info.

              Hunt

              1. re: BigWoodenSpoon

                If you find an organic, sustainably-farmed Sauvignon Blanc for under $5, I'll give you my pager number.

                  1. re: Chinon00

                    Awww, c'mon. I still have a rotary phone. : (

      2. Like you inferred, it's just a way to charge a premium for mediocre blends.

        1. when you can use some sawdust or oak chips instead of a $1,200.00 barrel you can try to cover up the insipid overcopped fruit. oh, i forgot, leave some rs too.

          on the low end it's just oak and sugar. on the high end it's also over ripe, over alcohol over extraction. thank you robert parker.

          1 Reply
          1. re: jock

            Jock,

            In both cases, I fell that the sawdust, or oak chips saw some use, even in the Rhône, and you know how we love our white Rhônes.

            I was rather disgusted in each of these wines, and now understand why so many want "unoaked" wines. For me, I have no aversion to oak, but only when balanced. Same for ML - only when balanced. Same for ABV - only when balanced.

            Still, I had not recently experienced such heavy-handed treatment, and did not enjoy it - RS, or not... [Grin]

            Take care,

            Hunt

          2. Well, obviously, it's not the "NEW" norm, but has been around for a long time now. Indeed, I'd say the trend -- albeit slowly -- is reversing somewhat.

            That said, on the low(er) end of things -- think "wines with aspirations -- there remains very little hope.

            As Louis P. Martini used to say, "If you want oak, chew a toothpick."

            1 Reply
            1. re: zin1953

              Yeah, probably been around far too long, but I was just not experiencing it, due to the normal whites, that we drink. These were just two, that hit me in the mouth, and in an alarming way.

              I have no aversion to oak, when used with restraint, and when it adds, rather than detracts from the wines. My Montrachets have oak. My Meursaults have oak. However, that element is intertwined, and never shows itself. It is there, but subtle. These were anything BUT subtle, and I was blind-sided. Now I know what so many complain about. DUH!!!!

              Thanks,

              Hunt

            2. Remember, oak is like make up. It is frequently used to hide flaws. They try to fix in the winery what they screwed up in the vineyard.
              The worst part is that they'll ferment in stainless steel and introduce the oak flavor by putting in oak chips. So you get none of the aeration that comes with oak but all the bad flavor influence.

              22 Replies
              1. re: SteveTimko

                Actually oak is *not at all* like make-up. Oak CHIPS are like make-up. There is, as you know, a substantial difference.

                The use of oak in barrel form is more like spice -- salt, even. Some foods don't need salt, but some do. And if you're making (let's say) chicken soup and you don't use any salt, something will be missing; it will be flat. You may not identify it right away, but something will definitely be lacking. OTOH, if the first thing you taste is the salt . . . well, the chef screwed up and added too much salt. And if the first thing you taste in a wine is the oak, it's usually too much oak . . . .

                Oak CHIPS, on the other hand, is like adding pure oak flavor, and that can INDEED, can be used to "hide flaws." More often than not, however, it's used to add an oak "character," period, and in relatively inexpensive wines, rather than to mask off-aromas/tastes through the addition of scent/flavor.

                1. re: zin1953

                  Not an oak fan, never was able to understand the appeal of "buttery" Chards. But I was served a Toasted Head Chard with a really citrusy grilled halibut and I have to say they were paired perfectly.

                  But I wouldn't just enjoy a glass with a light salad or fruit.

                  I like my whites more of mineral or floral feel.

                  1. re: Luna2372

                    I've never been an "oak fan" either, but oak and "buttery" are two difference things.

                    >>> I like my whites more of mineral or floral feel. <<<

                    You and me both!

                    1. re: zin1953

                      Oh...it was my understanding that the "buttery" feel came from a malic acid interaction with the tannins in the oak? Causing it to take on a full round almost slippery feel. Do I have it wrong?

                      1. re: Luna2372

                        I have never used the descriptor "buttery" to refer to a physical sensation, a "feel" of the wine.

                        "Buttery" is a term most commonly associated with California Chardonnay and, in my experience, is used to describe an aroma/flavor that is -- well -- buttery, reminiscent of butter. It comes from the presence of diacetyl in the wine, which is a natural by-product of fermentation, and has nothing -- to the best of my knowledge -- to do with tannins or oak.

                        Diacetyl is what they added to Parkay to make it say "butter," if you're old enough to remember those television commercials, and what gives microwave popcorn that "buttery" flavor (without using butter!).

                        Cheers,
                        Jason

                        1. re: zin1953

                          OK..I think I disagree. Malic acids add to a feel of a wine. It is also been decribed in French wines.

                          I do remember the old "Parkay" ads. ;-[

                          Still think it is a by product of oak fermentation.

                          L

                          1. re: Luna2372

                            Now, Malolactic Fermentation can be in oak, and most probably is, but it is a secondary fermentation, and is not a product of the oak, but the secondary fermentation, whether natural, or induced.

                            I agree that "oak," and "butter" are separate descriptors, though they can be present in the same wine.

                            Hunt

                            1. re: Bill Hunt

                              Ok..Bill..why does the term "buttery" feeling most apply to chardonnay?
                              Really..I love that feeling of some great chards. But why only chards?
                              Is it a component of the grape?

                              1. re: Luna2372

                                I do not think of ONLY Chard, but that grape really lends itself to the "butter."

                                It also often sees ML Fermentation (like many reds), where a lot of whites never do.

                                Hunt

                                1. re: Bill Hunt

                                  Ok..what reds do you know of that have a "buttery' feel attributed to them.

                                  I really do find this fascinating. why is one food so like another? I did really love the difference with the wine pair of a buttrery wine with a tart fish.

                                  I would never really like this wine to drink on its own or with a rich dish. But it wa so perfect.

                                  have you had this experience before?

                                  1. re: Luna2372

                                    Not sure that I have encountered a red with a pronounced "butter" note, but not too far away, I have found bacon (a similar mouth feel, with some overlap in "fat") in both PN's and Syrahs.

                                    When I think of pure "butter," I normally think of Chardonnay, and almost every one will have undergone some level of ML Fermentation.

                                    Enjoy,

                                    Hunt

                                    1. re: Bill Hunt

                                      MMmmm...bacon and red wine is really to die for. I have never found it in PN, alas I live in BC and we don't have the growing season for it. But one small German winery near me does do a muscat that is really out of this world. Well my small world. I do try really hard to support the BC winerys.

                                      But I would be interested to know of a Syrah..not an Aussie Shiraz...that had a good bacon feel

                                      L

                                    2. re: Luna2372

                                      >>> Ok..what reds do you know of that have a "buttery' feel attributed to them. <<<

                                      None. At least none that I can recall . . .

                                      "Bacon" or "bacon fat" are common descriptors used for Syrah, especially originating for the Northern Rhône (Côte-Rôtie is the "poster child for this). That said, I find less of that particular character in many -- though not all -- Australian Shiraz varietal, and in many of those California Syrahs produced in an "Aussie" style. But I *do* often find it in California Syrahs made in a more "Rhône-ish" style. Perhaps it's present all the time, but masked by the super- / over-ripe fruit, and high alcohols . . . I don't know; hadn't thought about it before.

                                      I also hadn't thought of finding bacon and/or bacon fat in Pinot Noirs before reading Bill's post, but now that I think of it, perhaps that is part of the quality of those over-the-top, in-your-face California Pinots that I generally a) dislike, and b) refer to as "Pinot-as-Syrah."

                                      But -- FOR ME -- I find the descriptors "bacon" and "bacon fat" to be more aromatic and flavor-oriented, rather than tactile . . .

                                      Cheers,
                                      Jason

                              2. re: Luna2372

                                What is "oak fermentation"???

                                There are two types of fermentation with which I am familiar: there is the primary, sugar-into-alcohol fermentation, and there *can* be a malolactic fermentation IF the winemaker permits/does not prevent it. (See below.)

                                Now fermentation can take place in pretty much anything: stainless steel or glass-lined tanks, concrete vats, stone lagares, open-topped wood tanks, plastic bins, even small oak barrels (generally white wines only). Did you mean "barrel fermentation"?

                                There are four "main" acids present in wine: tartaric, malic, lactic, and citric. A malo-lactic fermentation converts sharp, tart, malic acid (think crisp green apple) into the softer, weaker lactic acid (think milk). White wines in general rarely undergo malolactic (aka "ML" or "malo," for short) ***except*** for some - not all -- Chardonnays and even fewer Champagnes. Most reds *do* undergo ML, save for some Gamays and a few Zinfandels.

                                A Chardonnay that has undergone ML will indeed seem rounder and more supple -- generally speaking -- than a Chardonnay that has not. But a Chardonnay that has undergone malo may or may not be buttery . . . even here in California, the butter capital of the world when it comes to Chardonnay!

                                Cheers,
                                Jason

                                1. re: zin1953

                                  Ah, "lagares," a term that I have not heard in a very long while. Thanks for that!

                                  As for ML, some winemakers use only a percentage of a particular vintage, under ML. One favorite of mine, uses about 40% ML, and the rest with no, or abated ML. It just depends on the winemaker, and their vision.

                                  Hunt

                      2. re: zin1953

                        Oak chips are capable of producing nearly the same character as a traditional barrel.
                        The oak overdose is a matter of not being precise enough about the amount used and especially the contact time.
                        You CAN get decent results with chips...but it is also very easy to go too far.

                        1. re: The Professor

                          FWIW, I've never knowingly mis-identified chips for barrel aging . . . that is to say, whenever I have thought that "Wine X" had in fact used chips, I've been correct.

                          Now I readily admit this is a bit like proving a negative. I have no idea how many wines I have had that used chips that I didn't think were chips (and so never bothered to check). but in tastings and judgings, whenever i've thought that a wine may have been produced using oak chips, and asked the staff and/or the winery if chips were indeed used, I've been right. And it's not always to cover up flaws, it's not always too obvious . . . the flavors of the oak *taste* differently than the flavors one gets from a barrel.

                          That said, I agree that "you CAN get decent results with chips," but a) it *will* taste different, and b) yes, one can easily overdo it.

                          Cheers,
                          Jason

                          1. re: zin1953

                            Hi, zin1953:

                            "I've never knowingly mis-identified chips for barrel ageing". Maybe so. Chips (and to a lesser extent, the "beans") will over-extract, and quickly, too. Do you feel the same way about/ask questions after wines that hang staves or spirals?

                            For that matter, barrel ageing isn't exactly the converse (or obverse) of oak substitutes. In fact, a case can be made that they're entirely different things. If one gets the extraction right, you can wind up with a finished wine--assuming you do everything else right--that is *close* to one whose only exposure to oak has come from the barrel(s).

                            If you think about it, this is what a lot of winemakers have done since the invention of cooperage. With some unfortunate exceptions, it's what IMO makes the best wine: you get it off the oak at the right time, but you KEEP it in the barrel. Taste and rack into a 1-year/marginal/neutral barrel as the taste and style dictate. The idea of new cooperage for each vintage has always seemed a little foolish to me. But hey, I get to buy the 1-year barrels with the designer ML bacteria in the $$$ wood!

                            But you are absolutely right that slow-extraction oaked wines taste different than flash-extracted even for the same sensory degree of "oakiness." Personally, I think reds that undergo their *primary* fermentation on or with oak show a similar distinction, and they're only working for less than a month in most cases.

                            Lots and lots of factors at work in this, fewer good explanations. That's one reason why, to make a small fortune in winemaking, most start out with a large one.

                            Aloha,
                            Kaleo

                            1. re: kaleokahu

                              Hmmm . . . where to start?

                              >>> Chips (and to a lesser extent, the "beans") will over-extract, and quickly, too. Do you feel the same way about/ask questions after wines that hang staves or spirals? <<<

                              I'm tempted to reply by saying, "Only Leonetti."

                              Innerstave and other ways of hanging/inserting staves/spirals, etc. do extract more slowly than chips, so the short answer is "no," in that I don't always notice their use.

                              >>> Taste and rack into a 1-year/marginal/neutral barrel as the taste and style dictate. The idea of new cooperage for each vintage has always seemed a little foolish to me. But hey, I get to buy the 1-year barrels with the designer ML bacteria in the $$$ wood! <<<

                              Every winery for which I've worked has worked, primarily, on a 4- or 5-year barrel rotation program AND kept larger, older, neutral wood on hand. At one winery, it was a combination of old oak and redwood tanks; at all the others, it was old oak barrels, puncheons, and ovals from 225L to 600L or even larger uprights.

                              Thus, it's obvious I never worked for a 1st Growth château in Bordeaux, or the DRC. ;^)

                              By the way, ML 34 was isolated at one of the wineries at which I worked, albeit some 19 years before I worked there . . . .

                              Cheers,
                              Jason

                              1. re: zin1953

                                Hi, Jason:

                                4-5 years sounds sensible. I've never worked at Quilceda Creek or samesuch either, but QC's resale barrels aren't nearly that old or played out at all. That's mostly why I buy them.

                                I've been playing with the spirals a little, too early to pass judgment. It seems to me a decently-thought-out concept. I think Barrel Mill claims full extraction at 6 weeks, and we'll see... Whatever their disadvantages, the spirals make micro-type adjustments between rackings pretty easy without OD'ing the wines on chips or beans or pumping all over the place. Saves me argon, too.

                        2. re: zin1953

                          Hi, zin1953:

                          I like your observations on this.

                          The only "makeup" aspect I see from a winemaker's perspective is leaving the wine on oak long enough to start to draw attention away from a flaw (or 8). I don't know anyone who starts a harvest saying "Block X fruit is really sh#tty this year, I'm gonna oak this sucker." What they *will* do is guess at a balance that makes sense--to them--at the time. But the crucial question is usually: When do you rack *off* the oak (or rack into a more-spent barrel).

                          So I don't particularly subscribe to the "Barrel Oak Good--Barrel Oak Substitute Bad". Industrial Wine of the type that Joe's can offer at <$10 is not spending any time in a barrel. Any oak that gets in there is put there in the form of "staves" or cut-spirals, theoretically surface-calculated to be Goldilocks Just Right. Any oxygenation comes from Ox-Boxes slung in the SS bulk tanks, not from barrel transpiration. Chips have a *terrible* amount of excess surface area and excess toast, and are therefore an engraved invitation for over-extraction and off flavors. But if the winemaker knew *exactly* when to winch out the giant bag-o-chips, there wouldn't be a huge problem (except for the schlubs in Marketing, who want to sell more cheap wine to high-volume retailers of plonk who buy oaked plonk).

                          Aloha,
                          Kaleo

                        3. re: SteveTimko

                          Steve,

                          In these cases, the wines were like that aunt, the one who wore far too much makeup, and did things, that embarrassed your family.

                          If there were other flaws, they were so hidden, as to not be noticeable - one could not get past the oak.

                          Could have been chips, or sawdust, or "essence of wet French oak," but it was so far over-the-top, as to make the wines totally undrinkable.

                          It was like a lady, who had bathed in an essence, then added that powder, and finally a significant application of the same perfume, and then walked into an elevator with you.

                          Hunt

                        4. From my experience dry white wines that are generally not oaky and affordable are (to name a few) White Bordeaux (e.g. Graves), Côtes de Gascogne. And many others I'm sure.

                          1. Thanks, Bill. There's a TJ's opening up here in ten days, and now I will now what to avoid. I hate drinking wood, pretty much won't finish one like that. Even cooking with it is a challenge, but they sometimes work to poach dried fruit.

                            2 Replies
                            1. re: amyzan

                              Imho, cooking with an overoaked wine is more challenging than drinking it, because as the wine reduces in cooking, the flavors (bad as well as good) intensify, turning those oak chips into tree trunks.

                              1. re: ChefJune

                                Yeah, that's why I suggested dried fruit. With fresh fruit, the oakiness is just WAY too much, but with all the sugars of dried fruit, it often works better. I don't reduce the wine and use it as a sauce, though. Again, just too much. But, the rehydrated fruit can be nice in a compote. You're going to have to taste and judge individual wines, of course; another case of YMMV.

                            2. Waiter, my oak juice is presenting with a slight but notable "grapey" element. Flawed?

                              1 Reply
                              1. re: Ricardo Malocchio

                                Yes, and I've had a few of those recently - unfortunately.

                                Hunt

                              2. If it taste strongly of oak, butter and/or vanilla it must be a California wine!

                                2 Replies
                                1. re: BlueOx

                                  I'll give you the butter, but I can think of plenty of over-oaked wines and/or wines loaded with vanilla that come from places OUTSIDE California . . . .

                                  1. re: zin1953

                                    I'm not sure that I would even "give butter," as I detect some diacetyl-like notes in several Cortons. This seems to come forth with a few years, along with honeysuckle notes.

                                    Hunt