2005: Oaked vs. unoaked
Perhaps there is a possibility that more of California’s Chardonnay will be tank fermented and tank aged (e.g., “un-oaked”) this year due to the big harvest. For those who’ve complained of late about too much oak in California’s Chard, this will possibly be a vintage which they can draw more wines which exhibit “terroir”.
I’d say that's quite possible, though the issue of what “terroir” itself is hasn’t been resolved, so perhaps it would be better to say that these un-oaked wines are more “true to varietal typicity”, though that’s a mouthful.
Un-oaked can be rather interesting, but for my money I like some oak influence in my Chard. I just find it more complex – though I will be honest and say there’s a limit, and it's gross when winemakers use too much & the result is nothing but wood for the nose & finish.
Anyway, here’s a look at a view that seems to take this "un-oaked" idea a little to the extreme: [Caymanian Compass]
“We look for medium bodied wines that are easy to drink, and with less alcohol content,” said Mr. Richter, who added white wines should be crisp and fresh with very low acidity and the red wines should not be oak barrelled (sic), but fermented in classic metal barrels. [my emphasis /St.Vini]
“…classic metal barrels”, eh?…and that would be what…?...a stainless tank, perhaps? Drums and kegs? And I don’t see how they could be considered “classic”…
This harvest, many coastal wineries were faced with shortages of barrels due to the “extra” tons that appeared on the vines, causing many to buy whatever barrels they could find. Personally, I think part of the problem of these “extra” tons was a fault of the vineyard teams not really watching what was going on – really, how can anyone justify being off the mark by 30~50% with a vineyard estimate? 10% low is possible, maybe 15% would be the farthest I’d be willing to accept as just a “natural variation”…but 30% low? 50% low?
Get real…they were just guessing blindly…
Long story short, this put the wineries behind the 8-ball when it came to fermentation room and storage of these new wines, and both barrel cooperages and used barrel brokers found business brisk – just as it was back in 1997 when we had another huge harvest [link to Wines & Vines article from ‘97]. The next big harvest was 2001, which of course wasn’t as severe for the wineries, mostly because the barrels were on hand from the previous years, and the large & long harvest was anticipated, where 2005 wasn’t – for whatever reason. There was the down-turn in the wine markets from 2001 to 2004, which left many wineries reducing their harvests accordingly – as well as their capacity. Barrels were soon in vast surplus, and the value of used barrels plummeted.
But harvest 2005 turned that situation around quickly, with many cooperages finding they couldn’t fill new orders fast enough, and some wineries are still waiting for their new barrels today…tanks being the choice of storage in the mean time.
Another facet of this is the custom crush facilities (or even wineries which had extra capacity they weren’t going to be using). Any tank that vintners could find was filled – sometimes at ridiculous prices. This again was a sharp turn around for a segment of the industry which had recently fallen on harder times, due both to their clients increasing their own capacity & reducing needs for their services, as well as the downturn in the market which also reduced needs for their services.
As with all things in the wine industry, the demand for these services is cyclical & dependent on the growth fluctuations of the industry as a whole.
Anyway, I’ve probably gone on with this long enough. As a side note - here’s another good article from SFGate.com which has a refreshing look at some of the 2005 bargain wines. It also has some snobbishness from a few professional wine critics, as well as some down-to-earthiness practicality.
For those who want it, there should be plenty of opportunity to sample "un-oaked" California Chard this year, as well as possibly less oak influence as a whole.