Rob Moshein - The Austin Wine Guy

From little acorns, might oaks grow, but not vineyards....

August 28, 2009

A few weeks back, a stray discussion got started on Facebook, on the page of Iron Horse Vineyards doyenne and wonderful human being, Joy Sterling.  Joy posted an article about un-oaked Chardonnay being a new "fashion trend", to which I replied, "Thank God, about time".  Another wine blogger took some umbrage at my postion, and wrote: "putting the idea out there that oak is used to mask flaws could be misleading to many people....yes, it can be used for that purpose...but overall, in the case of wines such as those from the cotes de beaune, oak is a positive rather than a negative....all i'm advocating is balance, in the argument as much as the wines....there are  plenty of simply outstanding chardonnays that are fermented and aged in 100 percent new oak....but what works for one wine may not work for another....unoaked is a style, not a religion...."

I essentially replied "Name one. I haven't had one yet..."  
As a result, Joy Sterling was hugely generous and gracious to send me two of Iron Horse Chardonnays 100% new oak barrel fermented and aged, the 2007 Corral Vineyard and 2007 Rued Clone.  Joy: THANK YOU!

The Corral Vineyard:  Interesting green apple and pear toned fruit on the nose, but a huge overlay of warm toasted oak.  The palate was similar. Really nice fruit, good mouthfeel and texture. Great balance of acid beautifully integrated. Nice terroir. BUT all that darn cloying warm oak just kept interfering. Now, the oak was indeed much more integrated than most other lesser efforts, but it was still a star player on the flavor profile stage.  I wood grill roasted a whole chicken to pair with it, to try to compete. It didn't help.  Reuse at least half the barrels every fall.   This fruit doesn't need to be so overly oaked.

Rued Clone:  An outstanding wine. Truly. Great green apple flavors, spicy lime citrus tones, nice mouthfeel and one of the most perfectly integrated acid profiles I have seen in a California Chard.  Now, clearly the oak was water bent, not fire bent, so it wasn't toasty or cloying, BUT... there was this pervasive flavor tone exactly like chewing on wooden toothpicks on the palate. It was like a guy yakking on the cellphone during a performance of a Beethoven Concerto...You want him to shut up and go away. That is what I kept thinking about that wooden tone that only got worse over two hours time open.  If Iron Horse just keeps using the same barrels, replacing a few new ones as needed, this wine will be without doubt one of the FINEST Chardonnays produced in the United States, I'm serious.  You have such great fruit from a great vineyard, I don't see what is really gained by 100% new oak. All you are adding are wood flavored tannins. Why?

So, I thought, maybe it's just me. Maybe I'm missing something here because all of these wineries spend all this money on expensive wood.  Am I just not "getting it"?

I reached out for a professional winemaker's input on the subject. I asked Greg LaFollette of Tandem Winery. Greg is an expert winemaker and heck he even lectures to the FRENCH in BURGUNDY ( !! ) about making Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, so I figured he could shed some light.

His response: I'm not a fan of 100% new oak in Chardonnay, but there are vineyards that seem to hold more new oak without being overwhelmed.  It is definitely a style statement.  There are some chemical considerations, but nothing really of consequence other than flavor.  What really matters is that barrel fermentation (of any kind, new or neutral) does change the fermentation kinetics through a number of different ways, the most important of which is the fermentation curve.  A quick rise in temperature to a "spike" followed by a slow decline does stimulate some physiological changes in the yeast population that can lead to a better mouthfeel.  This is important enough a discussion that I'm cc'ing my team - thanks for bringing this up!"

So, bottom line. There is no good winemaking reason to use 100% new oak EXCEPT TO IMPART THE FLAVOR OF THE WOOD.

The "religion", in the view of yr mst hmble & obd't srvt here, is that in the wine business there is a  dogmatic belief steadfastly unwavering that Chardonnay is somehow improved when barrel fermented and aged in all new oak barrels. This dogma has been continuing for some 25 years or so now, particularly in California and Australia. Customers have now been baptized into the creed to believe the wine is SUPPOSED to taste like that.  So, I suppose I must be the Sir Isaac Newton in face of the Catholic Church's position.  Just as the Earth revolves around the Sun and not the other way around, Chardonnay is not somehow better because it tastes like a barrel.  Really. Honest.

There, I've said it. I feel better actually.  Now, I'm not picking on these specific wines, nor do I intend this as any insult to the winemakers.  I felt the same way about Pahlmeyer (read the earlier blog) and Penfold's and a host of other "high end" wines.  Still, I expect just as Sir Isaac, I will be charged with heresy and there will be clamour for me to be burnt at the stake on an Oak wood fire.

Great Wine, nay even good wine, should reflect the terroir of the vineyard, and the skill of the winemaker.  Do you really care about the barrel makers at Taransaud, Darnajou, and Seguin Moreau? Should the difference between Alliers and Limousin really MATTER for Chardonnay? Should you even have to care?

I will close with one of my favorite wine business anecdotes, which actually happened.  I was invited to lunch with Jean-Michel Trimbach of the famous eponymous Alsation winery, at the Austin Four Season's, along with several other people.  One of the other guests, a portly West Texas restaurant owner asked JMT "how much new oak do you use in your wine?"  JMT replies, "none, we don't use new oak...a barrel wears out, you replace it..." West Texas says, astonished "No new oak? Well why don't you use new oak in your wine??" JMT sits up slightly, sips the '68 Cuvee Frederick Emile, smiles and says elegantly "Well it is simple, actually. We are winemakers, not a lumberyard."

People, Are you listening?? You are WINEMAKERS, not lumberyards.  Consumers, you want to drink WINE, not lick barrels.


Rob Moshein
Austin Wine Guy



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