Berger on wine: Red wines lean heavily on oak for top-scoring flavors

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Quiz question: What grape delivers wine aromas described as vanilla bean, cedar, smoke, bacon, chocolate, pipe tobacco, mocha and toast?

Answer: None. These terms are not grape aromatics, yet all seem to be associated with high-scoring red wines that have been aged in heavily toasted oak barrels.

High scores for such wines seem to be mainly a result of how much roasted wood contact they had, acquiring non-grape flavors. A cynic (who moi?) might say that such wines are as much a product of trees as they are of fruit. This has been the case for the last three decades and seems not to be changing.

The history of red wine ratings since the mid-1980s reveals that red wines not aged in oak (such Beaujolais or chinon) almost never score above 90 points (on a 100-point scale). Most are closer to 80 points.

At such scores, most wine lovers would suggest a wine is barely drinkable.

How wood-based aromatics and flavors developed as a nearly mandatory component of any red wine that purports to be of high quality (and thus is expensive) is a complicated tale. But some wine reviewers are so smitten with oak they lavish praise on wines that have almost no grape or wine aromas.

As recently as the mid-1980s, wood flavoring in red wines was seen as a sign of poor wine making.

The late winemaker Andre Tchelistcheff often said that aging red wines in barrels was mainly done for maturity — to allow raw fermented grape juice to develop its wine-y flavors. Once you can taste the wood, Andre told me in 1986, you’ve lost the wine.

Yet so many of the tasting notes we read on supposedly exalted red wines refer more to the wood than to the grape.

Decades ago, one of the most widely acknowledged great red wines of the Napa Valley was the cabernet sauvignon from Heitz Cellar designated Martha’s Vineyard. One expected aroma note from a Martha’s Vineyard cab back then was a “eucalypt” smell. Some people called it mint.

It may have been a result of the fact that the vineyard was adjacent to a stand of eucalyptus trees, and that the “minty” notes in the wine actually came from micro-drops off the trees. The late Joe Heitz once joked that he encouraged that smell in the wine by tossing tree leaves into the gondolas after harvest.

Yet some people didn’t like or understand that aroma. Notably, in May 1976. a series of French tasters judged the 1970 Heitz cabernet to be seventh best of 10 cab-based wines in the famed “Judgment of Paris” tasting.

Eighteen months later, the Vintners’ Club in San Francisco, using only American tasters, restaged that event and the Heitz wine rose to second place. It was clear that the U.S. judges understood the mint component.

In none of the 10 red wines evaluated either in Paris or San Francisco were the terms bacon, smoke, vanilla, etc., used to describe any of the wines. Oak — particularly new and heavily toasted — had not yet entered red wine as a quality factor.

Today, the use of oak barrels is so widespread that even inexpensive wines have some of these characteristics.

But with barrels costing so much (between about $800 each to well over $2,000, or more), numerous oak alternatives have been developed that are much cheaper.

Among these are oak staves that are put into older, neutral barrels (or into stainless steel tanks), chips, “bullets” (grooved plugs), and oak powders (often dispensed with shovels into tanks).

Not very romantic, is it? They add oak-ish flavors to inexpensive wines, but the “oak” seems artificial.

Oak plays almost no role in white wines, except in chardonnay and a small number of other wines that are aged in casks.

Riesling, silvaner, pinot gris, grüner veltliner, rosé wines, ,uscat, and most Italian whites are almost never aged in barrels. Sauvignon blanc, pinot blanc and white Rhône wines rarely see overt oak treatment.

Our Wine of the Week is a great example of a delightful red wine that has almost none of the overt oak components that seem omnipresent in more expensive wines.

Wine of the Week: 2015 Fetzer Eagle Peak Merlot, California ($10): You’d be hard pressed to find a more characterful, varietal, and pleasant dinner companion than this elegant release from a winery now celebrating its 50th anniversary. Winemaker Bob Blue, in a subtle nod to the late Fetzer winemaker Denny Martin, has crafted a perfectly balanced wine Martin would have been proud to make. It has beautiful, merlot character of red cherry, plum, and traces of earth, and the perfect structure to pair with red meats.

Sonoma County resident Dan Berger publishes “Vintage Experiences,” a weekly wine newsletter. Write to him at He is also co-host of California Wine Country with Steve Jaxon on KSRO Radio, 1350 am.

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