Long have I taken potshots at the Big Oak excesses of some California wines, particularly the candy-floss chardonnays and cabernet sauvignons. Oak-barrel aging acts as a finishing school for many wines, lending subtly sweet notes and spicy flavors from the wood while starting chemical reactions that prepare good wine for rich evolution in the bottle—a process that in the best wines can continue for decades. That's the ideal. But the Big Oak approach sends the wine to a frat house. It pulls too much vanilla-like sweetness out of new-wood barrels into wine that is generally drunk young—often not long after it's released—and thoroughly unmellowed. Many love this effect, as I was reminded the other night when a fellow uncorked his favorite California chardonnay, a wine sold in vast quantities whose name you would recognize. It was bizarre: a drinking experience that could be roughly duplicated by eating lychee nuts and vanilla pudding with your head in a bag of fresh oak sawdust.
Still, it's grossly unfair to characterize the diverse California wine industry by the big-hair-and-silicone excesses of Big Oak practitioners (of which there are plenty in Australia as well). Along the way I had developed something of a phobia about California chards and cabs, almost always favoring wines from Italy, Germany, New Zealand or the Rhône. This was foolish, especially regarding cabernet and cab blends, because the exuberance of a California cab in full flower is not to be denied. Nature crams a superabundance of rich red-berry, blackberry and plummy flavors into California cabernet grapes, and when all that fruit is balanced by the right proportion of mouth-puckering tannins, you have, even in a relatively young example, a homegrown wine that is intensely appealing and distinct to its region.
You have a wine, moreover, that can run with the best of the French, as I was reminded recently when I blind-tasted a Sonoma Bordeaux-style blend and a pair of revered genuine Bordeaux. The showdown was between a 1996 Stonestreet Legacy from the Alexander Valley and a 1995 Pauillac, Château Pontet-Canet, as well as a 1996 St. Julien, from Château Gruaud-Larose. The comparison was instructive because each of these wines is a cab/merlot/cabernet franc blend in roughly the same proportion (with cabernet in the majority); all are priced north of $50 a bottle, and all rate ninety or better in one or more of the wine bibles. It took only a few seconds of sniffing and gargling to peg the Legacy: There was simply a core of intense fruit, as clear and persistent as the rumble in Johnny Cash's voice, that placed this wine in its locale. The Bordeaux, in the manner of many of their kind, were a bit tighter, leaning a bit harder on the tannins and ending up more in the cedar/tobacco flavor zone. All three wines will merit idolatry in a later decade, but I'm betting the Legacy's fruit will still sing loudest. This is what you pay for in a good California red: fruit volume.
Strong red American wine goes particularly well with strong red American meat, and since I was now in the mood for a reconciliation with California cabernet, it seemed time for a blowout dinner. I arranged to serve ten top-drawer cabs, in the $30- to $100-per-bottle range, along with two mighty meat courses, followed by Cuban cigars. All the wines came from the Napa Valley, and all but a couple from the good '96 and '97 vintages—wines likely to show some early signs of bottle development but recent enough that they are still available in good stores for a fair price.
For the meat, I had two animals in my crosshairs: duck and cow. Duck because it can be cooked to a silky, rich stew that counterbalances the tannic cut of red wine. Cow because there is a near-mystical collusion between the taste of good beef and the taste of cabernet, a blood-on-blood brotherhood of flavors that makes you want to take up the sword, if only to cut another hunk of prime aged porterhouse and collapse back into your chair.
That night saw a luxurious cabernet lineup, featuring the legendary Diamond Creek Volcanic Hill and a pair of Beringer Private Reserves as well as some less celebrated bottles. Against the assault of flesh (muscovy duck stewed with riesling and olives, three-inch-thick porterhouse grilled rare over hickory), four of the ten wines stood out, each different in style but all hailing from the expensive end of the aisle. With the duck, a 1996 Stag's Leap Wine Cellars S.L.V. ($85) was revealed as a lip-smacking wine delivering delicious cab character in a relatively restrained package. It was among the lighter, leaner wines my friends and I tasted, but impeccable and well-matched to the bird. Heavier, but still a medium-weight and elegant cab, was a 1996 Forman Vineyard ($50). For a wine that truly flexes its cab muscles, one could do worse for $75 than a 1996 Long Meadow Ranch, a deep-flavored wine that smelled and tasted of blackberry jam. Finally came the $70 tour de force: Beringer's 1996 Private Reserve Napa Valley, loaded with everything—stewed-fruit flavors, tannins, rich purple color—but balanced, a beautiful package that tasted sublime with porterhouse.
Of ten wines tried, only the 1999 La Jota Vineyard Howell Mountain ($39) was completely over the top with fruit and wood. "This wine wears a very large codpiece," one diner cracked. "It's Jethro Tull wine." The 1998 Diamond Creek ($110) was superb but could benefit from a few more years in the bottle. None of the four favorites exhibited Big Oak excess. All were delicious, crammed with fruit but free of frat-house manners. As I lit my Romeo y Julieta Churchill, recently spirited in from London, I vowed to refrain from taking any more potshots at California wines—at least until I serve another vanilla-pudding chardonnay, at which point all bets are off.
Scotch Whisky: A Cask of Caledonia
One thing Scotland is not known for is its forests. Vast stretches of the auld land—particularly its beloved links—are all but treeless. So when a distillery just north of Glasgow announced a plan to produce the country's first single malt aged in casks of Scottish oak, instead of the industry-standard Spanish (sherry) or American (bourbon) oak casks, whistle whetters on both sides of the Pond sat up and took notice. That beverage is now available, albeit in limited quantities, and it was worth the wait: Glengoyne Scottish Oak, priced at about $80 a bottle, turns out to be a nothing less than a once-in-a-lifetime taste.
For the final eight months of the whisky's sixteen years of aging, the distillery put it into a handful of casks made of sessile oak from a small, overgrown forest in Perthshire. To further set their new offering apart, the Glengoyne distillers dried the malt with warm air from wood fires rather than with peat. Its taste is therefore subtler than the mouthful-of-seaweed piquance found in malts from Scotland's islands. Glengoyne's palate is full of milk chocolate and nuts, with hints of wild honey. And one whiff will mark it in your memory: Replacing the sea are scents of heather flowers, roses and toasted vanilla. This is no links-style whisky. Fed by the streams of Loch Lomond, the taste here is pure parkland. To get your hands on one of 1,500 bottles of Scottish Oak that Glengoyne shipped to the United States, call your local specialty shop or visit thesinglemalts.com.