Friday, December 30, 2005

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 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.



Anonymous Lenn said...

I, for one, have really enjoyed the unoaked chards I've tasted in the past, mostly local Long Island versions and a couple from Australia.

Sure, these aren't the complex "serious" wines that some people like, but I find them much more enjoyable than the over-oaked, over-manipulated wines.

Overall, I'd agree with you though...I like the DISCREET use of oak with Chardonnay...but too many winemakers overdo it...

Happy New Year.

December 30, 2005 10:39 AM  
Blogger St. Vini said...

Though there's nothing that would exclude an un-oaked Chard from the "serious" category. Some partial malo-lactic fermentation could bring richness, and a bit of softening...stirring the lees in the tank could produce some sur lies character as well...

Happy New Year's, Lenn.
Cheers & stay safe.

December 30, 2005 11:13 AM  
Blogger caveman said...

Interesting idea that the un-oaked is due to oversupply as opposed to experimentation. I recently did an aussie tasting and was shocked by the number of unoaked bottles being poured, i imagine oversupply could also have been the reason. Ah, naive little caveperson.

I haven't had time to respond to the old natural wine argument but will in the new year.. there is more to be discussed here...

Again, good to have you back on line and happy new year


December 30, 2005 11:27 AM  
Blogger St. Vini said...

Hi Bill, good to hear from you again!

We should have that 'natural' discussion, perfect for the new year...

I don't know about the Aussies & what they're experimenting with as far as barrels go - or abscence of barrels as it may be...
Certainly there are monetary reasons not to use barrels (stainless is by far less expensive), but the stylistic differences between oaked and unoaked is what is interesting.
Many wineries use some barrel fermented blended with some tank fermented wine to adjust the balance of the final wine.
Wouldn't surprise me if there was some excess tank fermented that was bottled up by itself - and it would be greatly educational for a winery to bottle up some of both types from the same fruit so everybody could experience the differnces.

Anyway, thanks, and have a Happy New Year to you & yours as well!
Stay warm & dry up there,

December 30, 2005 9:23 PM  

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