It struck me this week as I tasted through several dozen Oregon Pinot Noirs that something was missing. And that was a good thing.
The missing element was new oak. It just did not register as a major factor in the flavor profiles of the wines. That represents a significant change from the way things were only a few years ago, when oak was a primary component.
The realization must have sneaked up on me because the minimal level of oak flavor was obscured by my delight to be tasting wines that did not feel amped-up by alcohol. Not that I have anything against alcohol per se, but the moderate levels in the 2008 vintage, which represented most of the wines I was tasting, made them such a pleasure to taste. The flavors could float, a phenomenon that can make Pinot Noir so magical.
Flavors usually associated with new oak include vanilla, clove, toast and resin. I found mostly fruit and the savory character of earth and mineral.
The reason for this is that Oregon winemakers have been dialing back the percentage of new oak they use in their Pinot Noirs over the past decade or so. The average around the state these days is 30 percent to 40 percent. Barrels contribute most of their flavor to the first wines aged in them. On subsequent uses, the oak contributes a certain suppleness of texture to the wine but not as much flavor. Since the majority of these Pinot Noirs go into second- and third-use barrels, the concentration of flavors from oak is minimized.
My theory is that improvements in viticulture have resulted in more concentrated flavors in the grapes, so it's less necessary to fill out the profile with the vanilla, toast and spice of oak aging.
There are, of course, some wines that see up to 100 percent new oak, but for the most part Oregon vintners have learned which of their vineyards and fermentation styles can absorb that much new oak flavor. Ideally, the fruit still prevails in the finished wine. The result today is a sea of really good wine without too much wood.
There are some commentators who disdain oak, to the point that if they taste the merest smidgeon they mark down the wine. I actually like the spicy, creamy notes that come from new oak, but I like them in balance with the other elements of the wines. Pinot Noir, especially, should taste of flavors that derive from the vineyard rather than winemaking techniques. And that's why I love that, in Oregon, oak-driven Pinot Noirs are a thing of the past.
[Follow Harvey Steiman on Twitter at twitter.com/harveywine]
Steve Trachsel — Poway, Ca. — October 21, 2010 3:53pm ET
Paul Manchester — Santa Cruz, CA — October 21, 2010 10:19pm ET
Brenda Wray — Grand Junction, Colorado — October 22, 2010 1:08am ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — October 22, 2010 1:36am ET
Don Fuller — US — October 22, 2010 8:37am ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — October 22, 2010 10:52am ET
Jeffrey Matchen — New Jersey — October 23, 2010 12:31pm ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — October 23, 2010 1:32pm ET
Jeffrey Matchen — New Jersey — October 23, 2010 1:56pm ET
Don Graham — Lake Oswego, OR — October 24, 2010 1:10pm ET
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