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Hint of Oak

Seeing the barrel for the trees in two or three Chardonnays

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Much of the talk about chainsaws and wine is inspired by concerns over new vineyard development. But if you really want to see a forest of chainsawed trees, go down to the cellar.

When you look at one to two wine barrels, you're seeing the product of one tree. That's because loggers only sell the bottom part of the tree to barrel makers, shipping out the rest to other industries. But it's not even remotely a clear-cut situation, says Dave Ready Jr., winemaker at Murphy-Goode Winery, about the unusual source of some of his barrels. Trees for American oak barrels are selectively harvested by small teams, says Ready, mostly in Missouri. In the 1990s, the Minnesota native was excited to discover a family-owned stave mill in the southern part of his home state. At the time, the staves were being made into Jack Daniels whiskey barrels, but Ready convinced them to sell him some oak.

"The cold weather and the short growing season out there makes the grain really tight," says Ready, "and I get nice flavors of the toasted nut character, a little vanilla, and it balances well with the Alexander Valley Chardonnay."

Mildly toasty, the Murphy-Goode's 2013 Minnesota Cuvée Alexander Valley Chardonnay ($26) has the same pineapple fruit and long, lemon-caramel finish as the 2013 Island Block Chardonnay ($26), because they're essentially the same wine, aged in different barrels. Fermented in barrels made from French oak trees—which can be up to 200 years old and are mostly managed by the French government—the Island Block ratchets up the tropical theme with a toasted coconut note.

Trinchero Family Estates promises to plant one tree for each bottle of Trinity Oaks 2013 California Chardonnay ($9) sold. They're not talking about oaks—the company donates to Trees for the Future, which helps to plant fast-growing tropical trees in communities around the world. To mark their 10 millionth "tree" planted in 2013, however, they did plant a live oak at the winery's St. Helena facility.

This was no spindly seedling, from the looks of the photo op, but a solid 20-foot tree. Turns out, when Napa Valley wineries want to add instant stateliness, or in some cases are required to make up for trees they've destroyed by development, they turn to the native oak experts at Napa's Main Street Trees.

After planting a tree of your own this Arbor Day, April 24, enjoy this serviceable, budget Chardonnay's cool apple juice flavor over hints of caramel, browned butter and oak.

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