French wines have developed their styles over the centuries, and a grape, or more often a blend of grapes, was eventually found to suit a specific area (or to “express” the area). To know where the grapes are grown, is to also know the style of the wine. In the 50’s and 60’s in California, winemaker Frank Schoonmaker (of Almaden), began putting the grape varietal names on the bottle to help consumers - since we didn’t know what Napa Valley, Russian River, or Paso Robles necessarily tasted like, with so many different varietals planted there. The grape varietal name on the label has grown to help give American consumers an idea or expectation of what a wine will taste like.
If a wine isn’t aged in oak, what is it aged in?
Almost all wine is aged for at least a short period of time before being bottle, and the three main options are new oak, neutral oak, and stainless steel. Oak allows a small amount of oxygen through to the wine, which helps smooth the rough edges, and the wood itself with impart a variety of flavors if it’s “new oak” (think vanilla, clove, smoke, caramel, etc.). Neutral oak no longer adds flavors to the wine, as it’s already been used for a few vintages, but it still helps smooth out the wine’s texture and mouthfeel. Stainless steel tanks, on the other hand, let the various elements of the wine integrate and combine in a neutral environment, but nothing is added in the sense of flavor or texture. Typically, red wines are aged in some kind of oak, fuller-bodied whites can also benefit from aging in oak, but light and crisp white wines do best in stainless steel to preserve their natural character and freshness.
Originally published in The Wine Press' Wine Wizard, J. Wilkes Wines edition.