let there be fruit!

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

No sooner had I written yesterday’s post on what might seem to some as over-oaked wines than I had the pleasure of meeting a winemaker who deftly stated exactly what I was getting at. First and foremost, I should make it crystal clear that I’m as susceptible to the olfactory and gustatory pleasures of new barrels as anyone. I have to stop and think sometimes, when tasting young wines that have been given the full barrel monte treatment, what is the fruit actually doing?

The wineries mentioned here are truly excellent, and there has not been a single so-so wine among the dozens tasted over the past few days. My point is more philosophical – what would these wines taste like with less new oak?

It’s also a question with financial ramifications. One discussion centered around the fact that once-used barrels have lost virtually all their value. The winemaker told me that he simply could not sell them locally for more than their value as planters! I couldn’t help but think what a waste that was. First of all, a waste of a perfectly good barrel, unless you want to extract the maximum toast, etc. Second of all, a waste of the winery owners’ money, because instead of getting full use out of their barrels, they use them once and throw them away. Third of all, it contributes to higher prices for wines, making them less reachable for the consumer, and harder to sell for everyone on the retail side.

At Bennett Lane winery yesterday, winemaker Rob Hunter made an interesting point. It turns out he was working with Nils Venge at Groth when their 1985 cabernet got a 100 points from Robert Parker. It was, I believe the first 100 point California wine. It was made in 100 percent new French oak, Hunter explained. But here’s the kicker. “We soda-ashed the new barrels before we used them to eliminate the new oak flavors,” Hunter confided. “No one does that anymore.”

Jeez – I guess not. Pay $1200 or $1400 for your super-toast special and then knock all the flavor out with soda ash? But it speaks to the style of a different day, and of classically-trained winemakers such as Andre Tchelistcheff, who disdained new oak in his BV wines. Hunter strikes a good balance with it at Bennett Lane.

“Our goal is to highlight varietal fruit flavor,” he explained, while pouring the winery’s white Maximus (all stainless), reserve chardonnay (just 30 percent new oak), red Maximus (20 percent new oak), cabernet (20 percent new oak) and reserve cabernet (just one third new oak). “These wines don’t need a lot of oak impact,” he continued. “I’m focused on fruit character. Toast and coffee and chocolate are not what cabernet is all about. I like to taste varietal fruit – cassis, black cherry, velvety tannins. What excites me is the depth, the intensity, the richness.”

Hunter, who has worked in the valley for 30 years, speaks (I hope) for at least a significant minority of winemakers here. Personally, I love California fruit. I'd like to see more of it.

1 comment:

Mike Holland said...

There are many winemakers - Paso Robles rhone rangers, for example - who are getting away from all the oak flavors and letting the fruit speak for it. As an amateur winemaker myself, I look at neutral oaks as a tool for concentration and micro-ox. If I want oak as a spice, there are cubes or staves that can be added to barrels or the primary fermentor. Barrels just aren't for flavor anymore.

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