From Tiny Acorns…

The delicious marriage of wine and oak is one of winemaking’s more intriguing and mysterious production steps. The use of oak barrels dates back to the 1500s, when they were used simply as convenient storage and transport containers. It wasn’t until the 1700s that French winemakers realized the benefits of aging and maturing wine in oak and began incorporating their use in wine production.

So how does oak affect wine? If oak aging is done correctly, there are three primary benefits to the final product. First, oak tends to reduce or soften the harsher characteristics of a young wine, making it drinkable sooner. Wine barrels made of oak actually “breathe” and allow slow and steady oxidation to occur, in turn softening the tannins and improving the fruit elements. The wine that evaporates during this time is known as the “Angel’s Share,” and the results of this process actually stain the bellies of red wine barrels, which is why they are sometimes painted red in the middle.

The second major benefit oak provides is the improved stability of a wine’s color and clarity. Natural tannins in the oak are slowly released into the wine during the aging process and will cause unstable proteins to bind together and settle to the bottom more quickly.

The third reason is regarding the flavor the oak imparts to the wine. Certain oak species have natural flavors, including vanillin that can add character to an otherwise dull wine. A process of toasting the barrels adds distinct flavors profiles as well. Through careful selection and barrel preparation, oak can influence wine with flavors that range from coconut to caramel.

Old Vine Zinfandel

Often referred to as America’s greatest contribution to winemaking, the Zinfandel grape has been cultivated in the United States, particularly in California, since the early 1860s. Although recent genetic mapping links the origins of this grape to the Italian primitivo, (which shares common ancestry with ancient plantings in Croatia), the general consensus is that the American zinfandel grape has developed its own characteristics and is considered by many to be a unique varietal.

Now second only to cabernet sauvignon in total acreage under cultivation, zinfandel is used to produce some of the most robust, potent wines in the world, with many of the best being made from “Old Vine” zinfandel grapes. Being that there is no legal definition for “Old Vine,” most winemakers agree that vines in excess of 80 years old qualify for the label. These gnarled, arthritic-looking twisted vines are true survivors, having lived through two bouts of phylloxera, prohibition and, of course, the ever-changing palette of the American consumer. And although they produce much less fruit than younger vines, the grapes they do produce are used to make intensely concentrated and highly praised wines that reflect real American character.

• Gnarly Head Old Vine Zinfandel, Lodi California 2006

Appearance:  Black cherry red

Aroma:  Jammy dark berry nose

Flavors:  Big dark fruit, with spice and cocoa tones

Finishing Notes:  Fruit carries through, long and lush on the finish

Where To Try:  Restaurant Saveur, Top Deck at Gordon Lodge and The Mission Grille

Where To Buy:  Madison Avenue Wine Shop, Econo Foods and Pick N’ Save

• Nichelini Old Vine Zinfandel, Napa Valley 2006

Appearance:  A cloudy reddish-purple hue

Aroma:  Loads of vanilla and sweet berry in the nose

Flavors:  Hints of spice and briary fruit with light tannins

Finishing Notes:  Fruit continues through as the tannins soften on the finish

Where To Try:  The Mission Grille and Whistling Swan

Where To Buy:  Madison Avenue Wine Shop and Siobhan’s

• Seghesio Old Vine Zinfandel, Sonoma County 2007

Appearance:  A deep ruby color

Aroma:  Aromas of sage and black cherry

Flavors:  Full flavors of wild berry and licorice

Finishing Notes:  Big, full finish with the tannins coming through, will last a while

Where To Try:  The Inn at Kristofers and The Mission Grille

Where To Buy:  Madison Avenue Wine Shop and Main Street Market

Information about “Where to Try” and “Where to Buy” these selected wines was provided by the local wine purveyors and vendors. If you happen to also serve or sell these wines, email [email protected].

WINE:30 is written by Karl Bradley and Jody Wuollett. Karl is the general manager and self-proclaimed “sous” sommelier for the Mission Grille. Former restaurant executive and Door County native Jody is happily under-employed as a Mission Grille food server and a member of the local band Northbound. They are both long time residents and first time contributors to the Peninsula Pulse.

Wine Wiki: Phylloxera

A commercial grapevine pest native to eastern North America, that feeds on the roots and leaves. Destruction on the roots causes a secondary fungal infection that can cut off the flow of nutrients and water to the vine.