Subtle is Better, but Oak Remains Indispensable for Wine

Winemakers discuss how they find oak to match their winemaking styles

by Andrew Adams
wines vines oak conference tasting style
Michael Terrien (from left), Jeff Cohn, Megan Schofield and Jeff Morgan speak about matching wine style to barrels.

Santa Rosa, Calif.—Speaking during a conference exploring the ways oak is used in winemaking, four veteran winemakers said they typically prefer a subtler oak presence in their wines.

Jeff Morgan, winemaker and co-founder of Covenant Wines and the session moderator, was even more blunt. “I don’t really like oak,” he said, “but oddly all my wines see oak in aging or fermentation.”

For Morgan, what oak barrels bring is texture, and that is incredibly important to him. “Whatever goes on in that barrel gives a certain richness, a certain mouthfeel that I don’t want in my tank-fermented Sauvignon Blanc but I really do want it in everything else we make.”

Morgan’s Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ages in about 50% to 60% new oak; those new barrels are a mix of Taransaud and Alain Fouquet French Cooperage, which he said brings a good combination of restrained oak from the Fouquet barrels and a bit more oak from the Taransaud. He added he also likes aging Syrah in Gamba barrels, saying the Italian cooperage’s barrels tend to have a more “aggressive” and “smokier” profile that does well with the varietal. “In our winery, we try and blend the cooper, the style of the cooper, with the varietals in question,” he said.

The discussion about matching oak to a winemaking style was one of the first sessions of the third annual Wines & Vines Oak Conference held April 26 in Santa Rosa. Morgan was joined by three other winemakers who each presented a wine they thought was a good example of how they use oak.

Robert Mondavi Winery winemaker Megan Schofield brought the winery’s reserve Chardonnay, which is almost completely sourced from Hyde Vineyards, on the Napa County side of the Carneros AVA.

Schofield said the strategy with the wine, first developed by her predecessor Rich Arnold, is to use about 50% new Dargaud & Jaegle medium-toast barrels. “I always feel that Hyde fruit to me is very delicate, almost ethereal, and so we have to be very careful not to overpower that.”

The grapes are whole-cluster pressed and ferment in the barrels with regular lees stirring followed by aging of 10 to 11 months with most barrels going through malolactic fermentation. The Dargaud & Jaegle barrels are built with water-bent staves and medium toast. Schofield said she also uses about 10% Taransaud barrels that she said tend to extend the mouthfeel of the wine and give it a spicy character.

Schofield also said she thought oak barrels, both new and neutral, were “indispensable.” Lees stirring and the kinetics of fermenting in barrels provide unique characteristics. Nearly all of the Mondavi Napa Valley Fume Blanc ferments and ages in barrels that are three to four years old, and she said those barrels are crucial to achieving that wine’s particular style. “It’s just not the same wine if we were to put that in stainless steel.”

“I would never in a million years guess that yours has that much new oak,” Morgan said after tasting the Mondavi Chardonnay. “I think oak is really important, but I’m trying to hold back because I’m trying to get more to what Megan is doing with 65% new oak, I’m trying to get there with no new oak. It’s a lot cheaper.”

Morgan had presented a Chardonnay from a single vineyard in the Sonoma Mountain appellation. “I’ve always been attracted to the minerality that comes out of it,” he said. “And so in terms of oak, I haven’t wanted to over-oak it because I want to have that minerality come through, so I would say we typically use 10% to 20% new oak barrels.”

Jeff Cohn, founder and owner of Jeff Cohn Cellars, which has moved in to a new winery in Sonoma County, brought a Viognier that he admitted has a different oak program than he normally uses.

Throughout his career, Cohn has used dozens of different barrels from dozens of coopers in a single vintage to create a spice rack effect of oak for his wines. The Viognier he presented, however, is produced through a partnership with French winemaker Yves Gangloff and is designed to showcase the vineyard. “We spent a lot of time both over in France and in the United States trying to figure out which one cooperage we wanted to use on this program and just focused on that barrel.”

They settled on a barrel from Tonnellerie Atelier Centre France with steam-bent staves and a long toast. The barrels are also 300 liters, and Cohn said he’s using more and more large-format oak vessels in his winemaking because they have added a desirable vibrancy and freshness to the wines. About 60% of Cohn’s barrels are now 300 liters or larger in capacity, and he thinks that number will eventually grow to about 80%. Cohn also recently purchased a 1,000-liter oval from Tonnellerie Rousseau he’s looking forward to using this year.

For the Viognier, Cohn said the oak provides structure and is an ideal vessel for fermentation and aging. “We don’t want that oak influence to be the wine, we want it to cradle the wine,” he said.

Everything else Cohn makes, Rhone Valley varieties and vineyard designate Zinfandels, age in a variety of different barrels. Some varietals match well to specific coopers; other barrels provide certain aromas and flavors, while others temper sensory notes, and some barrels he dubbed “puzzle pieces” may not taste that great on their own but are crucial in building a final blend. “I love using so many different cooperages because each cooperage brings something special to the table, and that’s what makes my wine,” he said.

Winemaker Michael Terrien is a partner with the Molnar family in producing wines from the Obsidian Ridge Vineyard in Lake County. The Molnars partnered with Taransaud to operate the Kadar cooperage in Hungary, so Terrien works with just the one barrel supplier.

He said the family has adjusted its oak sourcing to use more sessile oak (Quercus petraea) and less pedunculated oak (Quercus robur). Terrien said in his experience he’s found the robur adds a sweetness early in the aging process but that starts to dissipate around nine months, and the tight grain from the sessile oak then adds a welcome spiciness. Obsidian Ridge is located at high elevation in rocky, thin soils with little water-holding capacity and can produce what Terrien described as “rustic” wines in need of some softening. “For whatever reason, that oak seems to help soften the tannins of Obsidian Ridge, which are legion,” he said.

When Morgan asked the panel about their biggest mistake using oak, Terrien recalled when he was working at Acacia Vineyard that a cooper convinced him to try using some barrels made of acacia wood for Chardonnay. “It made the wine smell like hot dogs,” he said.

Cohn said there was a company at the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium one year that was selling barrels from China. Cohn did not personally buy the barrels but did end up working with four of them, and he said when they arrived at the winery you could see through the spaces between the staves. Even after soaking for hours, the barrels still leaked and did not help the wine at all. “The wines tasted like chestnuts and mushrooms and just very, very bad,” he said. “And then we tried to get in touch with the company that sold us these barrels, and they no longer existed. So they were able to get a place at Unified—which as we all know is very difficult, for all the barrel companies know it’s a challenge. I don’t know how they got in, but obviously they took our money and ran, so that was a bit of a bad mistake.”

Schofield, who is a native of Ontario, said she worked for a winery that mistakenly tried to convert an old chicken barn into a barrel room and then took the misguided approach of aging wine produced with the hybrid Marechal Foch in old whisky barrels. “I’ve tried it, and it’s not worth it,” she said.

When asked by a member of the audience about fermenting red wines in barrels, Schofield said she ran a trial with the method in 2015 to see if it could help elevate the wine from a particular vineyard. She removed the heads on four barrels and used them as small open-top fermentors. Schofield said it was a little labor intensive, but she liked the results and repeated it in 2016 and will do so again this year. “It’s not for every vineyard and varietal, but it turned out really well for us. The complexity of this particular wine from this vineyard is certainly elevated, and we’re seeing a big improvement; it’s getting to where we want it to be.”

Morgan said he will typically run a few lots through a flash détente provider in Sonoma Valley each vintage and he said he’s found a technique he likes is to then ferment that red juice in barrels. “That’s pretty interesting,” he said.

The conference also featured a panel discussion and tasting that focused on red barrel fermentation

Another question from the audience prompted Morgan to say winemakers are better served by following their own style than trying to stay ahead of trends in consumer preference when it comes to oak. “I do think what goes around comes around. So if you’re following trends and you’re trying to capture a certain market share, that might work for a while, but the trend is going to change,” he said. “I think it’s probably better to look to what is your vision as a winemaker, if you’re a marketing person that’s different, but if you’re a winemaker: What is it you’re trying to do? What is the style of wine you’re really excited by, inspired by? I would be true to your own taste rather than what you think the market wants of you.”



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