Learn About Wine: The Oak Equation


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Remember when big, fat, oaky Chardonnays were all the rage? About the time when Crockett and Tubbs were doing the T-shirt under Armani thing in Miami, if memory serves. Yep, those were the days of sweet, buttery Chards, overflowing with caramel, vanilla and toast. Was there even any fruit hidden under the plank of wood?

Thankfully, the era of oak excess has mostly passed.

Not that oak can’t be an enhancing component of wine. The Chardonnays acknowledged to be the best in the world – the rich white wines of the Côte de Beaune in Burgundy – see plenty of new oak.

two bottlesBut at protea, at least, we’re finding that when it comes to oak, less can be more.

That philosophy is driven by a couple of important factors – our intention with the wines, and the quality and the character of the fruit that goes into them.

With the Chenin Blanc, we aim for a fresh, clean and lively wine. And we find that our bush-vine Chenin Blanc grapes come packed with plenty of character. So we give the wine just a touch of oak, with about 10 percent of the juice fermented in French barrels.

You won’t perceive any oak flavor in the wine – that’s not the goal. We don’t want oak to get in the way of any of the zingy and delicious pear, citrus and honeysuckle flavors that Chenin Blanc brings to the table. But the oak helps to broaden the palate just a bit, giving the wine perfect balance.

For our Red, we start with ripe – but not overripe – Cabernet Sauvignon (53 percent) and Merlot (47 percent). These are grapes that have big flavor, but good acidity and well-developed tannin. That is to say, plenty of structure.

Because we want the wine to be ready when you open it, we age the protea Red for 18 months – but not in oak barrels. Instead, we use concrete vats. As the Wine Enthusiast noted, this is a material that, while not permeable to outside air like oak, offers advantages over stainless steel, as “tiny pinches of oxygen” in the surface of the concrete “help to preserve aromatics, tame tannins and improve mouthfeel.”

The result is a wine with big, bold flavors of blackberry, espresso and spice, but no hard edges. A wine that offers offers immediate drinking pleasure and the ability to get along with a wide range of foods – while maintaining the distinctive character of that fruit it was made from.

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