Why Is There an Oak Backlash?
Oak—like wine itself—is a fine thing in moderation. However, many Chardonnays produced in recent years have tasted more like vanilla-saturated wooden planks than like wine, thanks to a fad for aging white wines in nothing but new oak barrels. New oak—as opposed to barrels that have been used for three or four vintages and are considered “neutral”—tends to impart vanilla, caramel, nut and spice notes. New oak, used with restraint (often in conjunction with older barrels or stainless steel tanks), can deftly enhance a wine’s overall character. But used in excess, it can make a wine taste like wood chips, sawdust and vanilla extract.
Best of the New Chardonnays
2008 Brampton Unoaked ($11)
Brampton, a second label from top South African producer Rustenberg, takes its name from the estate’s Jersey bull, Brampton Beacon Bloomer. Despite those stolid origins, this Chardonnay is delicate and fragrant.
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2008 Cousiño-Macul ($11)
This bright, appley Chilean Chardonnay goes from vine to stainless steel tank to bottle without ever touching even a scrap of oak.