Learning about wine through tasting it is a little like learning a foreign language. After a while, the various experiences of flavors and smells begin to settle out, and -- just as in a foreign language you begin to understand when this tense is used or when that tense is used -- you begin to understand what you have read in books, or at least begin to understand what it is about wine X that you like, or about wine Y that generally you don't like.
Last night I tasted one of the "unoaked" chardonnays that are becoming fashionable among winemakers now, as they react to the overuse of oak barrels and oak chips to add depth to chardonnay. Strangely enough, this taste of a chardonnay "nu" (naked) helped me to understand why this grape might need a little time in an oak barrel to begin with.
The wine was Kunde Estate's Chardonnay Nu 2005, from Kenwood, California (Sonoma Valley). Wine writers say that you should consider three things when you try a wine, not so that you can be a Connoisseur but simply because these three things contribute to your pleasure and also tell you something about what you are drinking: they are color, aroma, and of course taste. This chardonnay had a lovely pale, clear yellow color, exactly like morning sunlight, as absurd as that sounds. (It doesn't take long before the novice wine drinker is compelled to use terms just as gooey as the professionals use. Other people's rhapsodizing might not be much use -- see a previous post -- but there is something about the product that just seems to require one's own groping after tangible, sensual word-painting.) It also smelled deliciously of pineapple and sweet lemon.
The taste -- well, I am not too sure about that, because as it went down almost all I tasted was "hot." That is alcohol. The Kunde's alcohol level was over 13%, to be expected since the chardonnay grape does tend to ferment to high levels. But for me, that spoiled the previous two pleasures of the wine. And I began to understand what wine writers mean when they describe, vaguely it seems, what oak does to wine. Makes it "gentler," they say, more sophisticated, complex, savory, smooth, soft, toasty, vanilla-y, and so on. I could well imagine a winemaker in Burgundy -- chardonnay's home -- centuries ago, tasting this and thinking "it needs something else."
But what? The Burgundian winemaker's answer, centuries ago, was "let's hold this in oak barrels." Most chardonnay growers and makers around the world ever since have agreed that was a good idea, except for those who are reacting to all that oaky uniformity and are fueling the nu backlash now.
And which is better, or at any rate more to your taste? It might depend on your meal or your mood or on lots of other things. That's the beauty of learning this particular foreign language. The more you understand, the more you get to decide the rules of usage yourself.
(Here: two typical and reasonably priced chardonnays: a Georges DuBoeuf from France, and Robert Mondavi's Woodbridge label. Jancis Robinson credits Mondavi with setting "the gold standard" for chardonnays in California.)