American oak ‘not suited to Cabernet’
American oak “does not match” with Cabernet Sauvignon, according to Brad Grimes, winemaker at Napa’s Abreu Vineyards.
Speaking to the drinks business on a visit to the UK to promote the Abreu’s distribution in the UK through the Pol Roger Portfolio, Grimes said that American oak imparted a “dill” flavour which was not suited to Abreu’s style of Cabernet Sauvignon.
“In an ideal world we would be growing our own oak forests and using everything from our own property, but American oak does not match with our wines,” the winemaker said.
“American oak has a very different flavour, a sort of green dill component, which just doesn’t match with Cabernet.”
“Maybe some producers have figured out a way to use a small percentage of American oak to accent the wine in a way that they like … and there is some American oak that has been used with Zinfandel and Syrah, and some other varieties, and may match better with those varieties, but I’ve never tasted a Cabernet out of an American oak barrel that was at all interesting.
Owned by prominent Napa wine personality David Abreu, Abreu Vineyards produces Cabernet Sauvignons from single-vineyard sites: Madrona Ranch, Cappella, Howell Mountain, and Thorevilos. Other Bordeaux varietals are used in small proportions.
Five wines are produced in extremely small quantities – around 12,000 bottles in total – using meticulous sorting and co-fermentation of grapes. Madrona Ranch, Thorevilos, Capella and Howell Mountain are single-vineyard expressions, while Rothwell Hyde is a blend from all sites.
All five wines are available in the UK through Pol Roger Portfolio.
Grimes, who has worked for Abreu for 16 years following a career as a chef in Seattle, said that new French oak was far better suited the the Cabernets that Abreu produces, allowing for a “pure” expression of the wine and greater consistency than old oak.
The winemaker uses two primary coopers – Taransaud, based in Cognac, and Sylvain, based near St-Emilion. He uses two other small cooperages whose barrels “accent” those primary wood sources.
“We use new oak. For me new oak is very, very pure. And the toasting levels that we’re working with, the wine comes out expressing itself in the purest possible way,” Grimes said.
New and old
“I have done experiments where I had eight barrels – four barrels that were new and four that I’d just emptied, from exact same cooperages – so two Taransaud, two Sylvain; and then two Taransaud, two Sylvain.
“I put the wine in those eight barrels, tasting four together or two and two, and there was a consistency with the [new oak]. Each one of the barrels that was filled previously was totally different. There was a lack of consistency and more irregular flavours and aromas on the barrels that were used previously. Not bad, but just different.”
Grimes explained that Abreu ages its wines in wood for 26 to 28 months, then keeping the wine in bottle for up to two-and-a-half years before release.
The extended time in the new oak was vital to the integration and longevity of the wine, he explained.
“That second year in wood is so important to make sure that we’re not cutting the life of that wine short,” he said.
“We bottled well after harvest, so for the 2013 wines, I bottled those in January of 2016, so those were in wood for 28 months. It’s important to have that second 12 to 14 months for that wine to come together in that wood.
“Even right now, if you came into the cellar and you tasted the ’15… I’ve poured those for wine reviewers and other people who have come to taste and they all express the same notion – that I can’t believe that these wines are so approachable right now.
“But there is no reason that they shouldn’t be,” he went on. “It just goes back to the wine [being] fermented so cleanly.
“You should be able to taste that wine at any point in its life – when it’s on skins, the day after it goes in the wood, when it’s gone through malolactic, right after it’s sulphured, it does not matter – that wine should express itself any time that you choose to taste it.”
Abreu Vineyards joined the Pol Roger portfolio at the beginning of 2015 in a bid to capitalise on the resurgent interest in Californian wine from UK consumers.
Grimes said there seemed to have been a “sea change” in the UK in the past year or two, with fine wine consumers becoming far more accepting of wines beyond the classic Old World regions of Bordeaux and Burgundy.
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