Oak jokes are old hat

In the early days of chardonnay in Australia we probably all gagged on an over oaked vintage and heard the usual jokes… splinters in the tongue, build a weekender out of it… the list went on. Perhaps the most colourful metaphor, though, was penned about ten years ago by UK writer Jilly Goolden.

In The Independent there was a regular section called “You ask the Questions”, and one reader asked:
‘Is it true that on a food and drink Christmas special you described a particular wine as having the properties of a “wooden bra”?  If this is true, what exactly would a wooden bra taste of, and when should one wear one?!’

Jilly’s response: ‘A wooden bra!  Yes, I confess, I referred to such a thing in a manner of speaking. What I in fact said is that the oak in a heavily oaked Chardonnay supports the fruit, like a bra, rounding it up and filling it out. I wasn’t saying it smelt or tasted of a wooden bra.  I’m not quite that dippy’.”

By that time wooden bra syndrome barely rated a mention in Australia as our winemakers had moved on ¬– although there were lingering occurrences of another chardonnay support: the silicone implant.

Before I explain that, let’s look at why so many of our early chardonnays tasted so heavily of oak. There are several reasons why this was so.

Firstly, our winemakers had to learn, on the run, how to deal with what was for them a new variety, demanding new skills. (In the early eighties, chardonnay barely rated a mention in our viticultural statistics. Now it runs neck and neck with shiraz as our biggest variety. We crushed 450 thousand tonnes in 209, enough to make about 33 million dozen bottles).

Perhaps the biggest challenge, as Jilly’s metaphor suggests, was to fill the middle palate and add complexity to large volume chardonnays. These really needed a little help, being made, as they were, from the fruit of high-yielding, immature vines.

Without a natural intensity of fruit flavour, winemaker inputs tended to count more than nature’s. Thus we had – as well as the flavours derived from fermentation and maturation in oak barrels or on oak chips – a barrage of flavour- and texture-adding techniques including must holding, hyper-oxidation, lees contact and stirring, fermentation on skins and other grape solids and malo-lactic fermentation.

Several internationally successful commercial chardonnays, conspicuously Lindemans Bin 65 and Jacobs Creek, emerged in this era. However, the ‘wooden bra’ brigade, for a time greatly outnumbered these more subtle creations.

Winemakers had yet to learn how to use oak. It took time to learn that timing was all important; that fermenting wine in oak worked better than putting finished wine in; that all-new oak was too much for most wines; that some sorts of oak worked more sympathetically than others; and that every wine needed its own oak regime.

Despite the ‘wooden bra’ syndrome, chardonnay production doubled every four or so years until the around the turn of the century, such was the demand. It subsequently fell out of vogue with drinkers, overtaken by the Marlborough-led sauvignon blanc express.

But there’s much to be said for chardonnay. In my view it makes the most complex and interesting whites on the planet, and what we make in Australia today bears little resemblance to the oaky versions we made twenty years ago. Our winemakers moved on rapidly from those styles – driven partly by consumer demand and partly by their own perceptions.

When consumers said ‘too much oak’, some winemakers over-reacted by burning the bra. In the mid nineties they gave us the unoaked’ chardonnay. It tried, and failed, to be what sauvignon blanc is today. Len Evans called it a con, and he was right.

Other makers pursued the more palatable, two-pronged approach of refining the bra and, to extend Jilly’s metaphor, using better breasts: mature vines and improved viticultural practice produced tastier grapes and better wines.

By now makers had also learned how to use oak sympathetically to create truly complex wines from this wonderful grape variety.

However, as the oak tide receded, some chardonnays became more buxom through the ‘silicone implant’ effect of malo-lactic fermentation. This natural process of converting malic acid to lactic acid tends to produce unctuous buttery flavours. A little bit adds complexity and texture; but too much is too much.

For mainstream chardonnay makers that was just another lesson to be learned on the way to the finer styles we now enjoy. Most of the broad learnings were in place by 2000. But we’ve continued to improve since then and today our top chardonnays are world class.

While the best tend to be fermented and matured in oak, vibrant, delicious fruit is the core flavour. Oak and all the other tastes, aromas and textures associated with time in barrel work harmoniously with the fruit. Chardonnay has moved on. The oak jokes no longer apply.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2009