If you’ve been following along, you know that I’m currently making a barrel of my own Syrah, sourced from California fruit. In doing so, I’ve dealt with various issues during the harvest, sorting, crushing and fermentation. Among the decisions I had to make was whether or not to use a commercial yeast.
I recently passed another decision point in the evolution of the wine: As the alcoholic fermentation slowed to a crawl and it eventually became time to press the wine off into barrel, I had to decide what kind of oak to use.
Nothing gets the wine masses riled up like a conversation on oak. The pendulum seems to always be swinging in one direction or another. First the "American palate" wanted only oak bombs, now we supposedly have come to our senses and want only elegant, acid-driven wines. The truth, as usual, is somewhere in between.
There are still plenty of people who like the influence of oak in their wines, and that’s fine. And there are others (probably a growing number) who prefer wines without any oak influence. That’s always the tipping point: When does the oak influence become too overt?
Let’s face it: All of the world’s greatest reds (and many of the greatest whites) see some form of oak aging. And does anyone want to argue that Guigal’s La La wines aren’t great? Yet they see 42 months of new oak aging and still manage to stay balanced (and no, that’s not a misprint). Many other top Northern Rhône Syrahs get their fair share of new oak as well—Stéphane Ogier and Jean-Michel Gerin for example—while other producers such as Chapoutier use lesser amounts. In contrast, traditional producers like A. Clape in Cornas use no new oak. So there’s a whole gamut of options ...
It boils down to this: When the oak becomes a dominating character in the wine, then the purists can make their argument against it. When I taste and review wines, I look for balance. You can have both big, oak-driven wines that are balanced as well as light, stainless steel-fermented and aged wines that are balanced. Those are the ones that I like. And of course you can have wines that are unbalanced in either camp—those are the ones that I don't like.
As for me, I’ve got no delusions of grandeur for my wine, so it was easy for me to eliminate trying the Guigal method. Besides I thought, it would be better to underoak the wine and at worst, wish I had given it a little more oomph, than it would be to overoak the wine and render it undrinkable.
While I do want to emphasize the purity of fruit in my wine, I do like structure and body, so I was going to use some oak. I just needed to find the right balance. And with only one barrel, as opposed to several that would let me blend varying amounts of oak, I don’t have much margin for error.
So, in the end the choice was pretty easy for me: The wine now sits in a second fill, medium toast French oak barrel made by the cooper Damy. I’ve liked the wines I’ve tasted from Damy barrels when I’ve been tasting in cellars in the Rhône, so when one was offered as a choice I jumped at it. The medium toast and second fill aspect also fit perfectly with what I have in mind for my wine.
So, another decision made, the results of which I’ll have to wait and see for the final result to play out ...
But I'm curious. If you were making your own wine (need not be Syrah), how much oak would you use? Would you go for the gusto? Take a very light-handed approach? Or would you try and find a happy medium?
Charles G Ross — Rochester,NY — December 4, 2007 3:59pm ET
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