Oak aging

I keep reading that there has been a general toning down of oak in chardonnay wines produced in California, but you wouldn’t know it from the wines I taste, of which I offer today a selection of 16. I’ve uttered these sentences before, and I’ll probably utter them many more times before I close the computer a final time and drag my weary fingers to the catacombs, and I don’t care if you’re tired of reading them; to wit: If a wine smells like oak and tastes like oak, it has too much oak. AND: Oak should be like the Holy Spirit, everywhere present but nowhere visible. Oak barrels are instruments, and they should not define a wine or establish its character; definition and character derive from the vineyard and the grape. It traduces every aspect of common sense that winemakers would want to send out into the world and into the grasp of innocent consumers chardonnays that taste as if they were made from liquid sawdust, yet many chardonnay wines feel exactly like that … and they’re not cheap. To those who say, “But, FK, plenty of people like their chardonnays to smell and taste like oak,” my reply is “Fine, start your own blog. Call it ILoveToastyOak.com.” This, however, is my blog, and on this blog we abhor wines that obliterate the purity and intensity of the grape and the authority of the vineyard through the heavy-handed agency of oak barrels.

Anyway, the scorecard today reads Excellent, 4; Very Good+, 5; Very Good, 1; Good, 1; Not Recommended 5. Among the Not Recommended chardonnay’s but also earning an Excellent rating are three from La Rochelle, a winery I admire for its individuality and willingness to take risks, though that’s a stance that to my palate doesn’t always work, as you can see. Still, I would rather a winery extend itself and skate sometimes over the edge than produce more bland innocuous “me-too” wines.

As usual in these Weekend Wine Notes (previously Weekend Wine Sips and before that Friday Wine Sips), I eschew reams of technical, geographical, geological, climatic and historical data for quick incisive reviews designed to pique your interest, if not, in some cases, whet your palate. Enjoy! (Or not.)

Artesa Chardonnay 2011, Carneros. 13.8% alc. Pale gold color; clean and fresh, touches of apple and pear, hint of pineapple; quite spicy, smooth and supple, not creamy or viscous, “just right” as Goldilocks said; almost savory in its slightly roasted fruit qualities and modulated spicy aspects; bright acidity, and the limestone and flint elements and sense of oak expand through the finish. Nicely-made. Very Good+. About $20.
Cakebread Cellars Chardonnay Reserve 2010, Carneros Napa Valley. 14.9% alc. A bold and powerful expression of the grape but balanced and integrated; bright medium gold color; pineapple and grapefruit, ginger and quince, hint of cloves; wet stones and flint mineral element that grows as the moments pass; no doubt about the oak but it contributes creaminess to the mid-palate, a supple texture and spice; long spice-and-mineral-packed finish; tremendous tone and presence. 14.9% alc. Now through 2016 to ’18. Excellent. About $55.
Cuvaison Estate Grown Chardonnay 2011, Carneros Napa Valley. 13.5% alc. The last Carneros Chardonnay I reviewed from Cuvaison was the 2007; I rated it “Excellent.” Not this example. Pale to medium gold color; bright, bold, ripe, spicy; you feel the oak from the moment you take a sip; grapefruit and pineapple, notes of lemon and lemon curd; plays a subtle floral card; plenty of acid and limestone minerality; supple texture at first but it feels as if the wine stiffens and becomes slightly unyielding with oak, which coats the palate and leave an astringent sensation in the mouth. Perhaps a year or two will help. Good only. About $25.
Davis Bynum River West Vineyard Chardonnay 2011, Russian River Valley. 14.5% alc. First note: “Man, that’s a lot of wood.” & it goes on from there. Medium gold color; insistently spicy and cloying; austere and astringent oak dries the palate unpleasantly; like drinking liquid sawdust. Not recommended and consistent with my reviews of Davis Bynum chardonnay (and pinot noir) from previous vintages. About $30.
Dry Creek Vineyard Foggy Oaks Chardonnay 2010, Russian River valley. 13.5% alc. Medium gold color; apples, pears and grapefruit, undercurrent of pineapple, moderately spicy, firm foundation of gunflint and limestone; lovely balance and poise, shaped by vibrant acidity and a burgeoning oak element that provides a modulating quality to the wine’s richness. Now through 2015 or ’16. Excellent. About $20, signifying Great Value.
Ferrari-Carano Tre Terre Chardonnay 2010, Russian River Valley. 14.2% alc. “Vineyard Select Limited Production.” Bright medium gold color; banana and mango, baked grapefruit and pineapple, cloves and smoke; big, deep, rich and savory; bacon fat, ginger, lemon balm, have mercy; feels like multiple layers of limestone and flint-like minerality; a bit daunting and needs a little nuance and elegance, but not over-oaked, not cloying. Perhaps it needs a year of age. Very Good+. About $32.
Gallo Chardonnay 2011, Russian River Valley. 14.1% alc. 87% Laguna Vineyard, 13% Del Rio Vineyard. I always thought the winemaker’s thumbprint — in this case Gina Gallo, whose name is on the front label twice — was too heavy on this wine; bright medium gold color; rich, warm, spicy, almost dense and chewy for a chardonnay; very ripe citrus and tropical scents and flavors; butterscotch, vanilla, cloves — what is this, a dessert cart? the oak and spice elements are overwhelming; so unbalanced. Not Recommended. About $30.
Gary Farrell Russian River Selection Chardonnay 2010, Russian River Valley. 14.2% alc. Pale gold color; fresh, clean, bright; pungent with cloves, slightly roasted peaches and yellow plums melded with pineapple and grapefruit with a whiff of white pepper; smoky oak, smoky caramel around the edges, quite dry yet feels innately balanced. Now through 2015 or ’16. Very Good+. About $35.

… that is the question, and my reply, unsurprisingly, would be, when in doubt, don’t, and even if you’re not in doubt, think twice before you do. Oak aging can enhance a wine, and it can kill a wine. Careful! This observation emerges after tasting two very similar wines from the same producer; one was made in stainless steel, while the other matured in new French barriques. Therein lies the difference.

The Zuani winery was founded in 2001 in Italy’s Collio region, in the northeast near Austria and Slovenia, by Patrizia Felluga, a fifth-generation winemaker and producer. She runs the operation with her adult children, Caterina and Antonio Zanon (see photo, right). From its 30-acre vineyard, the winery makes only two wines, both white, from a combination of friulano, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and pinot grigio grapes. In terms of methodology, the grapes for the Zuani “Zuani,” a “reserve” style wine, are generally picked two weeks later than the grapes for the Zuani “Vigne,” so the ripeness factor is more intense. “Zuani,” then, is the wine that receives new oak. In both cases, we have sleek, sophisticated wines, but, though I don’t want to be ungracious, my preference is the unoaked Zuani “Vigne.”

The Zuani wines are imported by Martin Scott Wines, Lake Success, N.Y. These were samples for review. Images from zuanivini.it.

The Zuani “Vigne” 2011, Collio, offers a pale gold color with faint green highlights. It’s a spare, lean, elegant white wine that doesn’t neglect its earthly origins in dominant layers of shale and schist that buoy elements of roasted lemon, dried thyme, lime leaf, lemongrass and green tea; there’s a tantalizing hint of camellia. If that description makes the wine sound inviting and appealing, then you’re securely in my camp. Acidity is taut and vibrant, lending crisp, coiled energy, while the mineral component gives the wine a sense of chiseled, frangible transparency. It’s dry yet juicy with flavors of lemon, spiced pear and grapefruit, all devolving to a finish that brings in more limestone and a touch of chalky austerity. 13 percent alcohol. Loads of personality. Now through 2014 with the classic Venetian risotto with mushrooms and peas, or with grilled fish or smoked or cured salmon. Excellent. About $24.
I’ve already told My Readers that the Zuani “Zuani” Riserva, 2010, Collio, was picked from slightly riper grapes and aged in new French oak. The color is radiant light gold; the wine overall is soft, supple and spicy, delivering notes of roasted lemons and yellow plums with a hint of almond blossom. As with its younger, unoaked cousin, this wine is resonant with bright acidity and scintillating limestone and shale minerality, but casting a veil over every characteristic is a sheen of blond oak, and though that woody camouflage gives the wine the sort of suavity upon which elegance seems to be based, in reality it masks and blunts that character that makes the first wine so attractive: the character of freshness and verve, of clean-cut, faceted clarity. I’ve said it before, and I’ll take this opportunity to say it again: If a wine smells like oak and tastes like oak, there’s too much oak. 13.5 percent alcohol. Now through 2014 or ’15. Very Good+. About $37.

Highway 29 around St. Helena so long ago turned into a carnival of showcase wineries, tasting-rooms and traffic jams that it’s difficult to imagine what the Napa Valley was like in 1934 when Italian immigrant Louis M. Martini moved from the Central Valley and founded his eponymous winery. What else was there? Beringer, Beaulieu, Inglenook, Charles Krug, Greystone, Larkmead, Lombarda (now Freemark Abbey). Wheat fields, walnut and plum orchards, cattle. During Prohibition, wineries either made sacramental wine or sent grapes by railroad to home winemakers in the Eastern United States, but Repeal brought renewed interest and activity and more acreage planted to grapes — mainly zinfandel, alicante bouschet and petite sirah — and while most wine was shipped in bulk, Louis Martini, along with producers such as Beaulieu and Inglenook, became dedicated to better quality and varietal bottling. One of Martini’s wisest moves was acquiring a 240-acre vineyard in the hills above Sonoma Valley in 1936; renamed Monte Rosso, this replanted vineyard, after 1946, became the backbone for many of the producer’s finest cabernet sauvignon wines.

Louis M. Martini was a master blender, and his preference was to blend fruit from several vineyards, using Monte Rosso as the core. He had no use for the small French oak barrels (barriques) that were coming into wider use in California. In fact, Martini didn’t even like American oak; he chose, instead, to ferment and age his red wines in 1,500-gallon redwood vats, a practice the winery continued until 1989, when the tanks were dismantled. This old-fashioned sensibility produced some of the best cabernet sauvignon in California in the 1940s and ’50s; the hallmarks of these surprisingly long-lived wines were elegance, balance, integrity and concentrated flavors. Louis M.’s son Louis P. became winemaker in 1954 and took charge of production in 1968, continuing to make wines in his father’s tradition. Fashion changed however. Temperature-controlled stainless steel fermentation and new French oak barrels were introduced, primarily by Louis P.’s son Michael, who became winemaker in 1977. For whatever complicated reasons, though, after the superb 1970, Martini ceased to be an important player in the increasingly competitive arena of Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon, actually failing to produce excellent wines in the exceptional years of 1974 and 1978.

The 1980s and ’90s saw the winery slide into the middle ranks of California’s old-line producers at the same time as it was outclassed by many newcomers. The winery and its vineyards, including Monte Rosso, were acquired by E&J Gallo in 2002; Mike Martini stayed on as winemaker. The last time I reviewed a range of cabernet-based wines from Louis M. Martini was in December 2009 (here); those wines were from 2006 and 2007 and mainly rated Excellent. That’s not the case for the four wines under consideration in this post, one from 2009, three from 2008; I found these present cabernets to be burdened, even smothered, with toasty, spicy, vanilla-laced new oak. No disrespect intended, but I wonder what Louis M. and Louis P. Martini would make of these modern, hyper-stylish, technologically-correct cabernets. The Gallo company and the Martinis obviously intend for the winery’s ambitious cabernet sauvignons to be competitive with the best that Napa and Sonoma offer, but as far as this quartet is concerned, it’s not happening. The winery may be venerable, but the wines are not “old-school.”

These were samples for review. The image is from my first label notebook, dated Feb. 8 & 9, 1983. I am indebted to Charles L. Sullivan’s A Companion to California Wine (University of California Press, 1998) and to James Laube’s California’s Great Cabernets (Wine Spectator Press, 1989), the latter the most complete and knowledgeable survey of the history of wine and winemaking at Louis M. Martini.
Louis M. Martini Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, Sonoma County. This is Martini’s basic cabernet sauvignon; the fruit derives from various sites in several of the county’s sub-appellations. No information is offered about the barrel-aging regimen, but you can definitely feel the oak. The color is rich, dark ruby; classic aromas of cassis and black cherry are bolstered by whiffs of dried thyme and cedar, black olive and lead pencil, with plummy, spicy undercurrents that expand to smoke and toast. The wine is even smokier and toastier in the mouth, burgeoning with scintillating graphite-like mineral elements that part the waves for an armada of smoky, toasty wood that submerges whatever fruit might linger in the background; it’s hard for the flavors to seep through. 13.8 percent alcohol. The company produced 266,200 cases of this wine, so in its wide availability and its focus, it represents Martini’s intent and philosophy. Good+. About $18.
Louis M. Martini Cabernet Sauvignon 2008, Napa Valley. Here’s a blend of 87 percent cabernet sauvignon, 4 percent cabernet franc, 3 percent petite sirah and 4 percent “other,” the most intriguing word in winedom. I’ll quote the winemaker’s notes: “The wine was oak aged in a mix of French, American and Hungarian oak barrels with a medium to heavy toast levels to add flavor and complexity.” I’m sorry to say that instead of supplementing the wine’s flavors and complexity, this aging routine dampened and dumbed down any flavors the wine could have displayed. The color, again, is radiant dark ruby; there’s a great deal of smoke and toast in the bouquet, wrapped around tight and focused cassis, black cherry and plum aromas. Both in nose and mouth the wine features intense, even penetrating graphite and shale-like minerality and a sharp smoky, ash-edged field of tobacco, walnut shell and creamy, spicy oak; the whole package is like oak candy sans fruit. 14.2 percent alcohol. Production here was 16,203 cases, so we’re moving up the scale of consideration. Try from 2012 or ’14 to 2018 or ’20. Good+. About $25.
Louis M. Martini Cabernet Sauvignon 2008, Alexander Valley, Sonoma County. Despite the powerful oak presence in this wine — a blend of 94 percent cabernet sauvignon with 6 percent petit verdot — I found it the most accessible of this quartet. Let me quote again from the material I was sent: “The wine was aged for 18 months in new and used French, American and Hungarian oak barrels with a mixture of heavy, medium and medium plus toasting levels to add flavor and complexity.” Yeah, well, it’s the heavy toast that kills the wine, and this one did not escape totally unscathed — there’s a lot of oak influence here! — but it also manages to deliver bright and vivid notes of cassis and black cherry, licorice and lavender and, in the mouth, plenty of unrestrained spicy, plummy macerated and almost jammy black fruit flavors, with overtones of iodine and mint. The wine is dense and chewy, creamy with oak, grainy with dusty tannins, and the finish works out its length through mineral-laced austerity. 14.8 percent alcohol. You have to like the style, otherwise, you’ll find this wine fairly exaggerated. Drink now, with steak or braised short ribs, through 2018 or ’20. Production was 1,919 cases. Very Good+. About $35.
Louis M. Martini Lot No. 1 Cabernet Sauvignon 2008, Napa Valley. The Big Gun of this group — there’s 3 percent petit sirah in the blend — aged 22 months in all new French oak barrels. That factor and the alcohol content push the spicy/ripe/sweetish qualities pretty high, though there are elements here that are not just attractive but compelling, as in the brilliant and vivid bouquet, a heady weaving of jammy black currants, black cherries and plums imbued with mocha and cloves, sandalwood, lavender and graphite. Lot No. 1 is monumental in structure, deeply dimensioned, tightly focused, intense and concentrated; the oak is, indeed, “toasty sweet,” and tannins are mountainside dusty and granite-flecked, enormous in scope; the result is a wine that delivers tremendous muscle power but misses the heart of elegance that would make it complete and balanced rather than ultimately blunt and obvious. This simply lacks the character to compete with other Napa Valley cabernets at its rather hefty price; still, try from 2014 pr ’15 through 2018 to ’20 to see how it develops. 15 percent alcohol. Production was 716 six-pack cases. Very Good+. About $120.