the two most common winemaking mistakes

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Take this as pure opinion if you like, but after tasting tens of thousands of young wines over the years, I have come to the conclusion that there are basically two fundamental errors that separate the OK wines from their betters.

I am not talking about flaws. These two mistakes have one thing in common: they mask the fruit. I have a thing about fruit. Even the greatest of great wines come from grapes. Grapes are fruit. I don’t care what your terroir is – your wine should have fruit flavors first and foremost. Everything else is window dressing, detail, nuance, grace notes, whatever.

Mistake number one applies to cheap red wines.

All too often, they attempt to mask green, thin, unripe or simply plain fruit with oak alternatives. And they end up with wines that taste like vanilla syrup and tobacco. Why vanilla and tobacco are the dominant flavors from too much soaking in oak chips, powder, stubs, dots, pencils, fragments, or whatevers, I cannot say. But you know what I mean. Vanilla syrup is not the flavor of wine! If you are making a cheap red wine, let it be what it is. Use the oak as sparingly as possible. I would much rather taste some herb, some earth, even some stem than that horrid vanilla syrup.

Mistake number two applies to pricey red wines. Same mistake, only this time it’s too much time in too high a percentage of new oak barrels. I cannot count the number of wines that I taste that are priced above $30 and often higher that have absolutely zero personality apart from the expensive barrels. If your base wine doesn’t have the cojones to take barrel aging in new oak, then don’t do it. It’s a waste of a good barrel. The fruit must have the stuffing, the power, the balance, the complexity, the juicy acids and ripe tannins to hold its own against the wood.

That’s it folks. Fix those two problems and a whole lot of mediocre red wines might have a shot at developing a real personality.

13 comments:

Ronald said...

As the maiden said to the cavalry, "What took you so long?"

Santo Roman said...

I have to agree with Ronald! Being that I am a shop owner I need to tell people that bring wines in all the time...Step away from the oak. Especially on white wines. Is there a code book being passed around in Woodinville that states you must put your Chard through malo and oak age it for a min of 12 months in NFO?

We actually carry only one wine from Woodinville for this exact reason while people on the other side get shelf space. Granted I deal 95% in wines from Europe and around but the ones I do have from WA are not covering up that little grape with oak. Just pure elegance..just the wait dr clore wanted it.

PaulG said...

Ronald, just because I posted this today doesn't mean I haven't said it before... c'mon. Everything old is new again (well, ok, not everything, but you get the drift...)

Mike Sherwood said...

Agreed. On both counts. That said, a winery orders barrels way in advance of the vintage. Say they are going for a 30% new oak profile on their big reds. The barrels are gonna get used, one way or another even if the vintage produced fruit that won't stand up to NFO. But when fruit tastes like a stick of oak... you've blown it.

Anonymous said...

I hate to post as anonymous, but I must say yeah! This is why I make wines that do not require masses of new oak. When I first was here and saw all these new wineries making merlot and cabernet, all out of the same vineyards, aging for 2 years in new, thin stave French oak, I could not tell them apart blind. This is not what Washington does best. The term fruit forward does not have to be an insult if you have amazing fruit.
I had a mourvedre that was painfully overoaked recently and thought, "they just don't get it"......

Anonymous said...

Just because Chardonnay has the word "Hard On" in the middle of it, doesn't mean it always needs wood...

PaulG said...

Awesome observation Anon! This is the sort of material that makes pg.com a must-visit blog for the cognoscenti!

Anonymous said...

Thank you. I am a winemaker and am consistently forced to over-oak my wines. The owners make me, because the consumers make them, because the media makes the consumer think that oak equals quality, because oak is expensive.

Jerry D. Murray said...

Thank you Paul for saying it! However I do think you make the equation much too simple: time and % of new barrels. My fear is that readers, always looking for a simplified version of winemaking, will latch onto the "%new oak" and not look at how that oak acutaully works with the wine.

There are many more selections regarding cooperage than just "new" or "used"; cooper, toast, forest, ageing of wood, all lend to just how that new barrel will impart flavor (and texture) to a wine. It is possible to make 60% new oak taste like 30% as much as it is possible to make 30% taste like 60%.

Reducing cooperage decisions down to a simple "index" does little to help with the consumers decision making process.

PaulG said...

Winemaker Anon - I am sure you are not alone. But I doubt very much that "The Media" makes anyone think anything. Jerry – I never intended this blog to be a winemaking manual! Of course I over-simplified. How complex can you be in a few hundred words? Your points are well taken and exactly right. But I did not intend, suggest, or attempt to reduce anything down to a simple "index"!

Kevin said...

I find this discussion fascinating in part because of the " its not the oak its how you use it argument " which I agree with to some extent, but because so many professional reviewers seem to pander to wines that lean on oak as a crutch. Look at Columbia Crest for example, their 2nd from the bottom shelf Grand Estates is a perfect ex. of mistake #1 yet it consistently gets 90 pt ratings. It is a shameful yet widespread practice. It appears that at least by WS's rubric a simple two tone jam and oak puree for 8 bones is an outstanding wine. Good to know where you stand as an avid WE reader, but I wonder how your colleagues see this issue.

PaulG said...

Kevin, good example. I have not really discussed this with my colleagues, but it would be fun to do so when we get together at HQ later this summer.

KeithJ said...

Hey Paul, good stuff, and if I may chime in unlike most of the gang so far here, on the cheap wine mistake - as I import a number of those and live with this every day. Sadly, the average consumer of wines in the $8 to $12 range seem to equate slurping into lush syrup with getting a real value for that hard-earned sawbuck. And they really don't seem to distinguish, or care, if that's coming from overripe fruit and high alcohol, oak extract, or some combination of things in that universe. The heft and char of the burger on the dollar menu determines its relative worth here.

There can be so many more natural killer qualities that they could and (at least we think) should appreciate in lower-priced wines: herbs, spice, clean tannins, bright fruit, great acids. And of course, ironically those lend themselves to far more enjoyable quaffing and food companionship. But that's not what puts multiple cases in the trunk, or gets you onto the casual eatery's by-the-glass list.

It stinks, and I sacrifice income every day for not caving in to selling these little beasts, or asking my producers to make me one. Ah well, too old to sell out now. But Kevin's idea about figuring out why so many reviewers drink the KoolAid is a good starting point for a slight course shift, perhaps.

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