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Oaked Chardonnay: finding the balance

How much oak do you like in your Chardonnay? And will that be staves or barrels? The first question comes up quite a bit. The second not so much.

How much oak do you like in your Chardonnay?

And will that be staves or barrels? The first question comes up quite a bit. The second not so much. But for a lot of folks, that little swack of wood is the very reason that they gravitate towards Chardonnay in the first place. However, in our increasingly food-driven wine world, oak is not necessarily the most friendly of wine ingredients, at least not to excess. Or, maybe, just maybe, we're finally learning that fruit comes first, or, as vintners like to say: "The best wines are made in the vineyard."

We were recently introduced to Spierhead, a new winery to watch on Kelowna's East Bench, whose wines are made by former CedarCreek winemaker Tom DiBello. The nicely balanced, quite sleek, apple-toned 2010 Chardonnay, made from Black Sage and estate-grown fruit, is understated, with a hint of mineral and just a touch of French oak ($23.90). Here's the kicker: it's made with oak staves. "Tastes just like barrel," says DiBello (who spent many years building CedarCreek's barrel program). "If you do it right, you shouldn't be able to tell the difference."

In a wine world sometimes still fraught with snobbery, DiBello wonders whether a wine made with oak slats is the kind of thing you should talk about. After all, there's no shortage of awkwardly made, over-oaked wines around -- some made with the infamous "tea-bag," where giant bags full of oak chips are suspended in the tank. The consensus? Ultimately, as DiBello notes, the wine will speak for itself.

We recently caught up with Laurie Hook, head winemaker at Beringer (which, founded in 1876, is Napa's longest-running winery). The delightfully down-to-earth Hook also knows a thing or two about oak. During 24 vintages so far at the iconic winery, she's witnessed the evolution from the big, woody, buttery wines that everyone used to crave to the more restrained styles of today.

I joked that Californians coming through Vancouver always loved to say how they'd "really pulled back on the oak." Then you'd taste and wonder what they were talking about. But nowadays, says Hook, it's all about reducing the use of new oak, and keeping the natural acidity through maintaining the fruit from the cooler sites in stainless steel.

Beringer Napa Valley Chardonnay 2009 is a sleek treat, with citrus and stone fruit overtones plus some mineral hints, in a careful, well-textured balance of fruit and oak. The idea, says Hook, is "to start in the vineyard and showcase the fruit in its truest form. There's no need to superimpose a particular style." Great Napa value at $24.99 BCLS.

While Beringer is indeed synonymous with Napa Cabernet, a sleeper in our tasting turned out to be Beringer Napa Valley 2009 Pinot Noir. Unlike some more hefty California Pinots it contrasts whole cluster-pressed, forward red and black berry fruits with juicy acidity and savoury streaks through a gently spicy end. With salmon season now here, we're thinking this with some barbecued Sockeye would be perfect. Everything Wine $33.95.

Belly's Budget Best

n Viña Koyle Syrah Reserva 08. There was no shortage of good values on offer at last week's Chile tasting but this was the deal: Smokey, gamey varietal notes on top, with a generous but structured palate and easy tannins -- from sixth generation winemaker Cristóbal Undurraga (BCLS $16.99).