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Into the wood 

Is oaky OK or not?

Winemakers slave long and hard over grape juice to fingerprint their wine. By imparting their personality into it, winemakers avoid producing uniformly bland wine. One expensive, yet delicious, way they tailor wine is by using oak barrels to either ferment or age the juice -- a tried-and-true technique that originated years ago when barrels were the common method of transport. If you've ever detected vanilla or toast wafting from your wine, then you've arrived in the loving land of oak.

Lots of people love lots of oak in their wine. Consequently, some wineries use too much, creating wine that's like sucking a piece of wood. Other wineries shun it altogether, preferring the cool, metallic flavors of stainless steel. But when it's done just right, the wine is beautifully creamy, adding an elegant hint of toast.

Most California winemakers want you to know they went that extra mile and used oak, since it's not a requirement in the United States. They'll normally mention it in the notes on the back label, so the info is available for the reading. Old World wineries in Spain, France and Italy must adhere to strict oak aging guidelines, with longer barreling stints dictating quality and reserve status.

There are two phrases to understand about oak: "barrel fermentation" and "barrel aged." Barrel fermentation means the grape juice's transformation into alcohol took place in an oak barrel instead of a stainless steel tank. The oak method is reserved for white wines, especially chardonnay. Oak disrupts the delicate flavors of lighter whites like sauvignon blanc, so they see stainless steel almost exclusively.

Barrel aging is when the winemakers' fun begins. Although using oak barrels adds up to $3 to each bottle, most feel it's worth the extra outlay. The initial investment falls at $600 to $800 per barrel, not factoring in today's exchange rate for French oak. Each barrel yields 300 bottles and can be used four or five times before it loses its oaky oomph. At that point, wineries either sell them, use them for storage, or refurbish them by replacing the oak lining. Some New World wineries experiment with oak chips and narrow strips of wood called staves during fermentation. Bundled in sacks, the wood steeps like a tea bag in the grape juice, releasing oak flavorings into the juice. Although this method is cheaper, the results are not as elegant as using the oak barrel. Alternatives can impart intense, astringent tannins in the final product. It's telling that oak barrel alternatives are illegal in most Old World wine countries.

Then there's what type of oak to use. France, the United States, Hungary and Canada are among the few oak barrel producers in the world. French oak yields softer, creamier wines, while American oak typically gives wine a more aggressive flavor. The final choice normally depends on the grape variety, but winemakers will often age the same wine in both French and American oak barrels and blend them to get the best of both styles.

So is oaky OK? Absolutely. The best use of oak barrels comes when you can barely detect the cream, toast and wood, and it simply adds up to a beautiful finish.

Recommended Wines

Wirra Wirra Vineyards Scrubby Rise 2003 Chardonnay. $10. . Perfect example of an oak-free wine, complete with a screw top and a great price. Aromatic with green apple, nectarine and then gushes of tangy grapefruit in the mouth. Well-balanced acidity that doesn't overwhelm the senses.

Mark West 2002 Pinot Noir Edna Valley. $15. . The aroma is cherry Jolly Rancher rolled in mud, but clean mud. The soil thing follows in the sip, but the oaked fruit still reigns. It's a blend of American and French oak-aged wine.

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