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Wine Review - Understanding Oak

2012 R.H. Phillips Toasted Head Chardonnay

With a new year upon us, we at are introducing a new type of article to our regular newsletter.  The articles will focus on “palate education” – reviewing specific wines that clearly demonstrate one or more specific elements of a wines profile.  Examples will include sweet wines, fortified wines, acidic wines, balanced wines, wines high or low in alcohol, or wines that have very pronounced aromas.  The wines we select to review will be based on three factors – widely available in the United States, affordable (almost always under $20), and representative of one or more specific aspects of palate education.

Our goal is to help you learn about wine the best way we know how – by drinking it!

In our first article we start with a common element of many wines – oak aging.  Many wines, both red and white are aged in wooden barrels, most often made from oak.  This is done so that the barrels impart flavors to the wine.  Aging may be done in oak barrels made from France, the United States, eastern European countries, or most any part of the world.  Each type of oak barrel has its own specific aroma profile but that's more detail than we're going to attempt in this first review.  We have chosen a Chardonnay to demonstrate the aromas introduced through oak aging.

2012 Toasted Head Chardonnay

The 2012 Toasted Head Chardonnay is an example of the rich aromas and “taste” that is produced from oak aging.  Most Chardonnay's made in the United States undergo some amount of oak aging unless they are listed on the label as being unoaked or “naked”.  There has been a small, now stabilized trend toward unoaked chardonnays in recent years, a backlash from nearly a decade of heavily oaked chardonnays.  What is offered in the marketplace today is a wide range from heavily oaked to completely unoaked.  Toasted Head proudly ranks itself in the heavily oaked category.

Aging wine in barrels has been done for centuries as the oak provides flavor and aromatic support to the wine. , while adding richer, fuller impressions and complexity. What does oak smell like?  Well think about wandering down the lumber aisle at Home Depot, or the smell of a new house under construction.  Part of the challenge of recognizing the smell of oak is that oak is not one aroma, but rather a collection of aromas produced from different compounds in oak barrels.  With nightmarish chemical names like 4-methylguaiacol and 5-methylfurfural, we associate them with more common aromas.  Oak typically contains aromas of smoke, cloves, nutmeg, vanilla, caramel/butterscotch and coconut. Over time you will recognize the accumulation of aromas as the signature for oak aging.

Toasted Head is made in the Dunnigan Hills AVA, east of the more famous Napa Valley in California.  The winery is named for the practice of toasting barrel heads (the ends of the barrel) to impart a mellow, toasted flavor to their barrel-aged wines.  Toasted head manufactures their own barrels, a clear indication of their commitment to oak aging.  Check out this fun quick video on how Toasted Head makes their barrels.

The 2012 Toasted Head Chardonnay was barrel fermented sur lie (on the skins) for eight months before bottling.  Only 10% of the wine underwent a secondary or malolactic fermentation (more on that in another review) resulting in preserved acidity and less creaminess to the finished wine.

The winemaker's notes describe the wine as having “a unique richness and complexity . . .  complemented by tropical fruit, peaches and pineapple on the palate.  The finish is well-rounded with toasted coconut and butterscotch notes.”  Taste the 2012 Toasted Head and see which of these aromas you can recognize.  In our tasting we found the oak aromas (as manifested by coconut, butterscotch, and a touch of smokiness) to be the most pronounced element of the the wine, which is why we selected it to demonstrate oak aromas.

With time and more tasting the presence of oak in a wine's aroma profile will become easy to recognize. Remember oak is not a single aroma but rather a combination of instruments that make up the dance band.  Should you need to remind your palate, pick up a second bottle of Toasted Head.  An easy way to highlight oak aromas is to try an unoaked Chardonnay (Naked Vines, A-Z Chardonnay) – the difference will be very pronounced.


To locate a wine shop near you that carries Toasted Head click here.

Technical Information (Note: this is for the 2011 Vintage)

Grape Variety

96% Chardonnay, 4% Viognier

Total Acidity

6.4 g/l


Barrel aged sur lie in a combination of new and used American, Eastern European, and French oak barrels for 7 months

Residual Sugar







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