OAK can be a double-edged wooden sword in winemaking. At its best, it can impart aromas and flavours of vanilla and sweet spices like cinnamon and cloves, as well as bringing a rounded mouthfeel to a wine.
At its worst, the oak can dominate, overpowering the primary fruit and leaving drinkers checking for tiny wooden splinters in their glasses.
Yet oak adds essential characteristics to the style of some of the world’s most famous wines – it’s hard to imagine what red wines from Bordeaux or white wines from many parts of Burgundy would taste like if they didn’t spend time ageing in wooden barrels.
Winemaking is all about balance: balance between the acidity and the tannins that give the wine its structure; balance between the level of alcohol and the level of sugar; balance between the fruit and the oak.
Making a feature out of oaky flavours is a decision that’s taken in the winery and can become the signature style for a wine – mention the word “vanilla” and it’s hard not to think of the Australian oak-monster chardonnays of the 1980s.
Oak has long been a feature of Californian wine too; a healthy kick of wood is one of the defining characteristics in many of its chardonnays, cabernet sauvignons and pinot noirs – even its sauvignon blancs too, in some cases.
What makes ‘great wines great’
A recent panel tasting hosted by the St Supéry winery at Rutherford in California’s Napa Valley highlighted how many winemakers now want to emphasise the character of their vineyards in their wines – giving their creations a sense of place.
Chaired by Karen McNeil, author of The Wine Bible, the panel discussed nine attributes that make “great wines great”: distinctiveness; precision; balance; complexity; length; choreography on the palate; the ability to evoke an emotional response; characteristics that go beyond fruitiness; and that all-important connection to a place.
Carole Meredith, an emeritus professor from the University of California at Davis, highlighted the complexity of Napa, pointing out that it’s not just one homogeneous area but is covered in both cool and warm climates and has slopes littered with volcanic rocks and the remains of ancient seafloors.
For Meredith, her sense of place comes at the Lagier Meredith vineyard she founded with her husband, Steve Lagier, on Mount Veeder in Napa Valley.
“Syrah loves a view,” she said, quoting Rhone winemaker Jean-Louis Chave.
Her 2014 Lagier Meredith Syrah ($48) demonstrated its sense of place with a herby aroma on the nose and concentrated bramble and black cherry flavours on the palate, coupled with soft, well-integrated tannin.
To maintain its sense of place, Lagier and Meredith use “No new oak. None. No”, instead opting for 22 months in neutral French oak barrels.
Passing through the gate
It’s not just established winemakers who want to harness that sense of place either. At Ram’s Gate in Carneros, sitting at the foot of the Sonoma and Napa valleys above San Pablo Bay, assistant winemaker Luke Stanko wants the work of the farmers who supply him with grapes to shine through in his finished wines.
Ram’s Gate grows some of its own grapes, but also buys fruit from 11 other sites in Carneros, Napa Valley, Russian River Valley, Sonoma Coast and Sonoma Valley.
Each is turned into a wine that preserves the characteristics of the individual vineyards, with the aromas and flavours of the fruit shining through instead of being masked by too much heavy oak.
Stanko’s 2014 Ram’s Gate Sangiacomo Green Acres Vineyard Carneros Chardonnay ($62) spends 11 months in 40% new French oak barrels, but the whiff of smoke from the wood doesn’t mask the fresh peach aromas. The crisp acidity pairs nicely with the peach and lemon flavours, while there’s a kick of buttery creaminess that comes from stirring the lees of the wine, the dead yeast cells left over from the fermentation that creates the alcohol.
Pinot noir from Carneros is always smoky and his 2013 Ram’s Gate Carneros Pinot Noir ($40) captures plenty of heavy Islay whisky-like smoke, coupled with roast meat and red cherry. It’s much fresher on the palate than the nose would suggest, with the ripe red cherry and red plum flavours combining with sweeter vanilla and cinnamon notes from its 11 months in 45% new French oak.
Poetry in a glass
Few wines have such a distinctive sense of place as those produced at Ovid, perched high on Pritchard’s Hill above Napa Valley – nor such a spell-binding view, with the towers of San Francisco visible in the far distance.
In the summer, the hillside vineyards have cooler days and warmer nights than the valley floor below, with winemaker Austin Peterson praising the site’s soils, which appear to have a special affinity with cabernet franc.
The 2010 Ovid Napa Valley ($285) is a blend of 63% cabernet sauvignon, 30% cabernet franc, 5% merlot and 2% petit verdot. The result is concentrated and complex, with aromas ranging from cranberry, redcurrant and red cherry through smoke, vanilla and coffee and on to tobacco leaf and leather.
Darker black cherry flavours join the red fruit on the palate, coupled with chocolate, vanilla and roast meat. It’s the structure that stayed with me though, with its very fine tannins, full body and refreshing acidity.
It’s far too easy to lump all Californian wine together under the heading of “over-oaked” and “over-ripe”, yet winemakers like Meredith, Peterson and Stanko are demonstrating that – at the upper end of the winemaking scale – a sense of place can translate from the vineyard into the bottle.