your thoughts on oaky wines

Friday, March 19, 2010

My recent Seattle Times column on the use/abuse of new oak barrels brought a lot of comments. A glitch on the newspaper website meant that no one could post comments, so I’ll run a few here. The basic premise of the story was summed up in the concluding lines: “Many Oregon and Washington winemakers are showing off the fruit rather than the barrels these days. Why shouldn’t they do that in California as well?”

This was not intended as a dump on California, but arose from a series of conversations with a number of winemakers on my recent swing through Napa and Sonoma. And yes, I know that there are many in California who are cutting back on the new barrels. I also understand that some folks really like those flavors, and it is certainly not up to me to dictate to a winemaker how he or she should practice their craft. All that said, I found that reader feedback was solidly – almost 100% – in favor of fruit over wood.

Cathleen F: Hey Paul,
 just wanted to let you know that not all California wines are oak driven. There are many wineries producing wonderful, fruit driven wines who believe that oak is like perfume.... a little behind the ear, a little behind the knee - just enough for intrigue. I, like you, do not care for over oaked wines and seek wines and wine styles that emphasize the fruit. 
What I found confusing about your article is that… you seemed to direct your complaint about oak use to the entire California wine industry... making it sound as if we are all oak hounds. We are not. While I did enjoy aspects of your article I feel one should be cautious not to over generalize.

PG: Noted. The limitations of newspaper space (severe) and the need to state opinions in a forceful manner may sometimes lead to what appears to be over-generalizing. Not my intent, I assure you.

Bill M: Please ‘splain me, as Ricky Ricardo used to say, what you mean by 200% new oak. I freely confess to innumeracy but don't see how it can be done without making/aging the wine twice over. There’s also an uneconomical/unecological side to explore. Best new French barriques cost about $1000 apiece last I looked, and the all-new-oak tribe [claim to] use them only once. Seems to me rather a waste of 60-80-year-old oak trees. And it’s why a lot of barriques made by French coopers are not made of French oak. One day someone will make a really fine wine using oak chips—or so I hope.

PG: Bill, I agree with you, it's very expensive and seems wasteful to me also. To answer the question, the wine goes into a new barrel for the first year, then into another new barrel for the second year. Voila - 200% new oak. There are oak chip companies claiming that they can do just as well with "infusion" products. I’d love to hear winemaker comments on that.

Jason C: I am so sick of opening a bottle of wine and smelling oak. To me it is a way of covering up for weak fruit. The Napa oaksters are living in an oak bubble.. they mostly drink wine from their own region. Its like TCA cellar taint; you become numb to it if you are around it all the time.

Sherry H: Thank you so much for crystalizing my feelings about the oak fanaticism that has had California in its grip for far too long! Years ago, I gave up on chardonnay – a perfectly noble and beautiful grape – for precisely this reason... before I realized (shame-facedly) that I could buy a lovely white Burgundy and actually taste the grape. I completely agree with you that our tastes are often shaped by the wines we grew up on. But as our palates become more sophisticated, it seems we should be able to wean ourselves from the huge flavors and look for the nuance. I think that is why I find myself increasingly searching out the bargains on Old World wines. "Terroir" is more than a fancy-schmancy French term; it actually means something very real and valuable!

PG: Agreed. The finest wines are nuanced. The pleasure is in the details.

Ralph R: I loved your column in the Seattle Times about over-oaking in California. In my opinion, the best thing that could help wine quality world-wide would be the appearance of a world-wide oak blight. One thing that you didn't mention is the use of old barrels (perhaps a better word would be "adequately seasoned"), for the fermentation and aging, especially with chardonnay. It does not have to be "all or nothing" with chardonnay (new barrels versus stainless), or even with Pinot. Barrel fermentation and aging with 5 or 6-plus-year-old barrels can give wonderful flavors. Thank you for addressing a serious threat to wine quality. I don't want my wines to smell like a lumberyard either.

PG: Ralph, I wouldn’t wish for a world-wide blight of any kind (well, maybe a mosquito-eradicating blight would be ok) but you are quite right that a mix of new, one year, two year, neutral oak, stainless, concrete, whatever is perhaps of more value than simply piling on different versions of new oak barrels. There are issues with neutral oak also, however, as they may easily taint wine if they are not scrupulously cleaned and maintained. On a visit to a winery last week that shall remain nameless I saw hundreds of barrels, none newer than six years old, but the hygiene was questionable and I felt I could taste it in the wines.

Don J: I thought your recent article on oak and California wines was great, though somewhat understated. Perhaps part of the problem is trying to salvage over-ripe grapes by providing them a backbone of wood Just the oak itself is bad enough, but the toasted oak is even worse. Unfortunately the problem has spread to north of the California-Oregon border. I recently opened a bottle of the 2005 Columbia Crest 2005 Shiraz (I wasn't expecting miracles for $9, just something drinkable). Unfortunately, I couldn't find the grape in all of the toasted oak flavors. I wonder, at the under $10 price range, if they are using those wood "chorizo's" instead of barrels. And just left them in too long?”

PG: Don, I would guess that the CC Shiraz is the winery’s attempt to make a Washington version of Yellowtail. You are quite right about the flavors. But they also offer other syrahs in a variety of styles.

22 comments:

Anonymous said...

I think the interesting thing to point out is that while there are a number of producers using less oak in there wines, it just takes a quick look at Paul's top 10 wines of 2009 to see most of them use lots of new oak in there wines. Many of them 100%! I think many winemakers believe that new oak makes there wines better not just in California, but in Washington and Oregon as well.

Anonymous said...

Yes, and it's not just Paul. No offense Paul but most of your top scoring wines along with the other wine scoring professionals who cover WA wines all score those who use quite a bit of new oak more highly than those who don't. The more nuanced wines are not rewarded at the scoring table.
-Charlie

Anonymous said...

Of course this could be solved if bottles (boxes) summarized sugar levels, oakiness, fruitiness, or other characteristics of interest to consumers. Some like buttery Chardonneys, others flinty. Why not provide the information?

PaulG said...

I do see that there is something of a pattern where high-scoring wines are also wines that get the new oak, but it does not follow that new oak guarantees a high score. I'll say it again - I have nothing against well-used new oak. I just don't want it to overwhelm the fruit, or compensate for a lack of fruit, or mask the terroir, or kill the nuances. When used well, with the right grapes, I'm all for it.

Anonymous said...

The best French oak barrels always respect and support the wines that age within them, and do not taste "oaky" per se. They lend structure, balance, and nuance which enhances and showcases the best of the fruit inherent in the wine. Inferior barrels and add-ins tend to taste clumsy, rough, or dominant, in my experience.

Anonymous said...

New oak can add tremendous textural elements to a wine. Color can be stabilized, tannins refined, mid-palate filled in, and aromatics increased with the use of new oak. The problem isn't with the barrels, the problem lies in the over use of oak to achieve "obvious" flavors. Like you referenced with nuances, oak should be something that you have to search for in a wine, not something obvious. Sure those vanilla, caramel, chocolate aromatics are appealing, but these "off the shelf" characteristics can be put in any wine with the proper budget easily obscuring vineyard characteristics. Balance is the key, some vineyards and varieties can handle new barrels without being overwhelmed better than other sites. But please, no more wines that smell like flavors of Swiss Miss.

Randy said...

Oak is a store-bought flavor. It's not winemaking and it's certainly not art. Anyone can go to a cooper, load their truck up with fancy and expensive oak brls and impart the aromas and flavors their "cheat sheets" state., "use this brl with this toast on the heads and this on the staves from this cooper... you'll impart these specific aromsas and this set of flavor profiles".

30 years ago we used mature old brs over and over because 90% of wines sat a full 20 months in brl. Newer aggressive brls impart oak and oxygen so fast the wines only sit 9-11 months now in brl. Coopers have outdone themselves when it soomes to self-promotion. I often tell folks to be suspicious when they walk into a TR and they hear about the winemaker or oak brls before vineyards or fruit.

Wine does need contact with the phenols in oak to bind aroma and flavor molecules but it doesn't need to be new freshly toasted crap. Non-toasted oak chips at fermentation and used mature brls do the trick quite well.

We fill about 160 brls each year and buy no more than 5 new brls each year. about 2.8% new oak. Hearing this Napa?

Anonymous said...

This issue of too much oak is such a gray area for me as a developing winemaker. Last time I checked an over oaked wine is not a flaw; it’s more of a stylistic expression. The wonderful thing about wine is we have thousands of choices; many times we even get a chance to taste it before we buy it. If we don’t like that style of wine, no one’s forcing us to buy it. And even if we shelled out the dough before hand, did we really lose that much? I don’t understand why we are getting so huffy puffy over this issue. Obvious chemical flaws are much more upsetting to me. Kendal Jacksons Chardonnay is an incredibly successful, very oaky wine and god bless them for making it. It’s not my cup of tea but I am not going to rip the winemaker for it. As I try to figure out how to shape my own style of wine, I am keenly aware of this issue and like most winemakers, striving to make the illusive “balanced wine”. I find myself concerned with so many other things (tannin extraction, microbial stability, ect) but the choice of oak is important, it usually shows its self at the end of aging. If I screwed up and got too much oak in my wine, I learned something but still have to sell the juice.

truthseeker said...

It’s really simple actually. If there are flavors in the grape no one with any sense would want to mask great earth flavors with oak. Flavors in the grape come from abundant minerals in the ground – true with grapes, true with fruit, true with your backyard tomato. Napa, a flat alluvial fill area, has poor natural minerals – no flavors in the fruit. They brought us 200% oak, and they will continue to do so. They’ve go no choice.

Anonymous said...

truthseeker, I recommend you read a plant physiology book. There is not any truth in that statement.

Gewurz said...

Youch! There are some definite arrows shot across the bows of ships!
I think there are a variety of reasons for oaking a wine. I am a true fruit-aholic. I love rhone wines, alsatian, german, and burgundies, but have enjoyed many cali-cabs and chards that are slathered with GOOD oak. There are coopers that make barrels like winemakers make wine. You have your high octane sawdust and whiskey barrels and your incredible spice barrels that impart light vanilla or cinnamin to a wine. I have used a few french coopers that actually raise the fruit in a red wine.
Many wine experts believe the truest expression of fruit and land to be burgundian wines. the amount of new oak in grand cru white and red burgundy would shock many northwest winemakers......... Not 200% but 100% often.

Steven Mirassou said...

If you're doing it correctly, you are as careful with your barrel choices and barrel use as you are with picking and pressing decisions.

It's about balance and complexity...the judicious use of the right barrel can definitely help with both.

Randy Caparoso said...

What a non-issue this is. I would agree with those who say that if significantly "oaked" wines are not your "cup of tea," they don't have to drink them. It's just like trucks with gigantic wheels or cars with itty-bitty ones: there's never any "right' when it comes to taste.

That said, I also think those who assume Californians are so primitive that they "all" over-oak wines just don't know what they're talking about. As a writer, I travel through and cover the entire West Coast, and I'm not seeing this. When it comes to pinot noir, for instance, percentage-wise you see as many Californians backing off on oak sensations (tannin, aromas, etc.) as you you see in Oregon. In both states, vintners are gravitating to less oak as their grapes begin to express more and more varietal fruit and terroir: very much a natural evolution, and a nice one at that.

By the same token, there are always vintners (especially new ones) who are heavy into oak, and you see them everywhere -- California, Oregon, and *especially* Washington. Then again, it's almost always the same circumstances: fairly new vintners working with with fairly new grape sources. When grapes (or winemaking talent) don't express too much quality on their own, it's all too easy to look to barrels to make up for the deficit.

But if naysayers are pointing to, say, Napa Valley cabernet sauvignons as examples of over-oaking, I say this: give it a rest. Bordeaux grapes famously absorb oak qualities,and it makes sense to apply that if it makes such wines taste that much better. Plus, most certainly, even in California cabernet lovers are not the same as pinot lovers. If it makes sense to go heavy on the oak because that's what cabernet lovers dig, then it would be dumb if a cabernet producer didn't do that (you can apply the same thinking to Bordeaux grand crus growths, where you find more new oak used than anywhere else in the world).

But like I said: if you don't love oaky wines, cool. If not, no one's making you drink it, aren't they?

Anonymous said...

Let's back off California for a bit. . . and I would like to back off the new oak as well. However, many of the coveted from Italy, Spain and France use 100% new oak as well. Listen to what Gewurz writes. The important thing for a wine is balance and new oak does provide tannin which helps a wine age. I am not a fan of 100% new oak wines and at our winery we use anywhere from 20-40% to provide structure and a bit of spice.

The holy gail of Cabernet are the First Growths from France. Guess what guys, 100% new oak! (http://www.wineperspective.com/winemaking_in_bordeaux.htm) Yes, they are not intended to be drunk on release, but years later after the oak fades in flavor but not structure. This would be many winemakers' preference for their wines, but many consumers can't wait to pop the cork. As much as I hate to say it because I like fruit first wines, don't bash the wineries for making wines that people want to drink and reviewers praise. Take the time as a consumer to find the wines out there that are to your liking and ignore the critics. Consumers drive the market, not the wineries.

Marshall said...

I too am a professed "fruit-aholic" and enjoy the proper use of oak, but I have to say, I've always enjoyed wines where oak plays a supporting role to the fruit, but on the flip side believe that some overly tannic wines benefit from extra time in a new barrel to mellow it out a bit.

PaulG said...

Randy, for a "non-issue" it sure generates a lot of comments! I never said that all oak was bad, or even that 100% oak was bad - just that it can sometimes be reduced and the wine will actually get better, not worse. Cabernet of course is probably the best example of a grape that can take an oak licking and keep on ticking. But that is at one extreme end of the spectrum. It's not an either/or equation - all new oak or no new oak. It's a continuum, and a stylistic choice, and certainly a consumer choice. But I do see a rising tide of consumer opinion favoring less use of new oak for many, if not most wines.

Anonymous said...

As a winemaker, I have to weigh in here. Oak seems to be becoming the "new alcohol" fight. For the past several years, it's been "wine has too much alcohol" and "especially California wine" and whine, whine, whine. Really, California has always been on the leading edge or technology, technique, and "the new." This is not necessarily a good thing, but I do believe it encouraged the French, Italians, Spaniards, and other countries to experiment and improve. Thus it is with alcohol and oak. And just as with everything else, some California winemakers have gone too far on both counts.

But consider it from a winemaking perspective - I make wine for my clients - a Cabernet, a Zinfandel, and a Syrah. The Cabernet is aged in new French oak for about six months or until it gets the flavor I want; then transferred to a one year old barrel for ageing, then to a neutral barrel to finish up ageing for? perhaps 22-28 months depending upon the grape, the year, etc. The Zinfandel is put in 100% new American oak, because, first, I believe the oak eventually brings out that Zin fruit, and second, both I and my clients like this style. The Zin ages for "X" months until it has a fairly balanced fruit - oak profile. The Syrah comes in somewhere in between on oak - I use French and American and age a bit longer than the Zin, but not as long as the Cabernet.

My point is, I use oak as a tool to imrpove the wine - I would defy anyone to make a good Cabernet without some good new oak, good old oak, and good medium oak. With Zin, new oak is almost a must for even some short period - perhaps even a month. So, not sure what the controversy is, unless we are speaking of the highly over-oaked, oak chipped wines, that, yes, some producers use to disguise inferior grapes.

But, I have to say, like the so called "alcohol controversy" the "oak controversy" seems to be a tempest in a tea pot...

Randy said...

Zin placed in 100% new oak is one of the most lame things I think I have ever heard. Cab and Pinot Noir do benefit from some new oaking as oak profiles compliment the inherient flavor on those varieties however I'm finding the delicate, perfumed aromas and flavors of Zin fruit are squashed with even ONE NEW BARREL in the mix of a 15-20 brl lot. We age our Zins for a full 20-22 months and our flagship is now seeing NO NEW OAK and it's beautiful.

It is my belief that new oak is really for wine beginners who are looking for outwardly projecting, easily identifyable aromas and flavors just like the coopers aroma/flavor data sheets state.

I cannot imagine paying $4-5 G per ton for Rutherford Cab and then placing that beautiful fruit in even 30% new oak let alone 50-200%!. It's borderline criminal.

And BTW, what aren't folks stating who they are? It's no way to blog!

Anonymous said...

Randy,

I didn't put my name because I didn't have an account to sign in - I'm still in the dark ages when it comes to 'social media.' And, apparently, you think, when it comes to wine making! But, I've signed my name below so you can see.

I do think your personal attacks are also "no way to blog." You are just "Randy?" Randy who? what is your wine brand, and why are you so angry? You seem to be (and this is just my opinion based on your silly comments) a "my way or the highway" type - your comments are indicative of an angry, know it all who can't tolerate criticism. Just because you make wine one way, does not mean I can't make it another way. Winemakers have been debating how to make wine for at least 300 years. Can't you keep it civil and not resort ot the personal?

Perhaps you could have said "I don't agree that 100% new oak in Zin is a good idea - I make my wine thusly..." rather than resorting to the personal? I disagree with the way you say you make wine - this does not mean I attack you personally. I have been making wine for appx. 24 years, so I'm not new to the club...

In any event, I mean no disrespect, but I think you are being nasty in the extreme and hiding behind a blog comment. If you want to leave your email, I'd be happy to contact you mano-a-mano and discuss the relative merits of each style of winemaking...

Rich.

Randy said...

Rich,

If you click on my name, you'll see exactly who I am and where I'm from. If you read my comments, you'll see "I feel" or "it's my belief". I am a very passionate grower and winemaker who believes in non-interventialist winemaking. I do not believe I'm being nasty in ,u rethoric rather a guy who works daily in the TR as engages my DTC clients. They're coming from wineries who do place much of their "spiel" and marketing on oak barrels and I'm really quite tired of hearing about new oak and it's proported value. Why are us winemakers placing so much of our efforts on oak? That's all I'm attempting to bring up. We should rely on our abilites to grow quality grapes or our ability to motivate the growers to do a great job so we don't have to rely on store-bought flavors like... new oak. No disrespect towards you either Rich. If we use less oak, educated consumers will purchase. I can attest to it personally.

Anonymous said...

Randy,

Thanks, I think we agree more than not - I was not saying I'm a proponent of "new oak" just that some of my clients like that oaky flavor. Depending upon the grape, the harvest, the hang time, etc. I will or will not use some new oak on my Zin - it is not always 100% - more often than not, it is 50% - and that is only for a few months (and again, this happens to be a style my clients like) and then rack to a new barrel. Having said that, I have to say, that after having spent some time in Bordeaux, new oak does impart some good flavors (in my opinion) to Cabernet grapes. I'm not advocating 100% new oak, but many, many, (not all) French winemakers I studied with will use 50% new oak for a few months...

So, on the whole, think maybe we are saying the same thing - I don't advocate using oak to disguise the flavor of the wine - the grapes are the product, not the oak.

Randy, thanks again for your comments, I appreciate your passion and will have to try a bottle of your wine - I did click on your name and now I get it. You see, my internet ignorance knows no bounds - perhaps I should take a lesson from you on that as well...

Rich.

mike - kasuari wine said...

Thus is the burden we share. In life everything has a balance... if you can taste the oak in the wine, there is to much. the cost prohibitive nature of our economy has helped this. To balance the wine oak is necessary and a stylistic influence that can capture the fruit and broaden the flavor profile...

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