Thursday, July 28, 2011

John Gilman on New Oak Barrels

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John Gilman, Author-Publisher of A View From the Cellar
Photo by Gerry Dawes©2007 /* * * * *

New, Small Oak Barrels

"Contrary to my reputation in some circles, I really do not mind wines with a lot of new oak. A perfect example are the Burgundies of producers such as Henri Jayer and Domaine Dujac. Both estates make (or made in Monsieur Jayer’s case) their wines almost entirely in new oak, and yet they are two of the finest producers of wine that I have ever had the pleasure to taste.

But it is extremely hard to use a high percentage of new oak well, and it takes any extremely skilled artist in the cellar to be able to consistently pull this off. Unfortunately, there are not a whole lot of producers with as much skill as Monsieur Jayer had during his lifetime. 

Too often, new oak dominates the other characteristics of the wine, both on the nose and the palate, producing in a best-case scenario a one dimensional wine that derives many of its flavors and aromatics from the wood.

And the worst-case scenario (all too familiar to those of us who taste a wide range of wines these days) is that the new oak has been imperfectly cured, and has leeched raw, resinous tones into the wine, which come across as sawdusty or resinous on the palate, and add so much raw wood tannin to the wine as to upset its balance. This condition is usually terminal--as the wine is too tannic from the wood to drink with much enjoyment when young, and spends its life stillborn and rigid from the oak, and eventually withers, with the fruit giving up the ghost while the wood tannins remain obstinately present

For those who are familiar with the New York subways, wines from the worst-case scenario camp are like two riders getting onto separate trains at Grand Central Station, with the fruit getting on the Express and the oak getting on the Local. After a short time, they are never going to come together again, and the fruit on the Express is going to be long gone by the time the oak arrives at the mutually agreed upon destination." - - John Gilman, author of the newsletter A View from the Cellar:  (From an interview with Gilman on the Dr. Vino website.)

John Gilman's observations are brilliant.  Like John, I know few who can pull off using all new oak and fewer still who can do that and produce great wines with alcohol levels in excess of 14%.  Basilio Izquierdo, the former winemaker for thirty years at CVNE in La Rioja who made some of the great vintages of CVNE Imperial and CVNE Viña Real Reserva and Gran Reservas, makes both a small production Rioja white and a red that are some of the best wines I have ever tasted in the modern era in La Rioja.  The Spanish Artisan Wine Group will have some of his wines shortly.  --

Down with synthetic corks! Jancis Robinson

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10 Jun 2006 by JR
"Wine producers of the world, please, please, please stop using plastic corks. They are utterly infuriating." -- Jancis Robinson,
Jancis Robinson interviews Portuguese winemaker Dierk Von Di Niepoort at the WineCreator conference in Ronda, 2008.  Photo by Gerry Dawes©2008 /

John Gilman on High Alcohol in Wines versus Sound Acidity for Ageing

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John Gilman, Author-Publisher of A View From the Cellar
Photo by Gerry Dawes©2007 / 

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Wine Over 14% Alcohol

"If you had said fifteen percent, this would have been easy! In general I think it is important to realize that history has not been kind to wines put in the cellar with high levels of alcohol, other than fortified wines, but that is another story. 

For non-fortified wines, high alcohol usually translates into either a short cellar life or a less than positive evolution in the bottle- or both. There are of course exceptions- Henri Bonneau’s brilliant Châteauneuf du Papes immediately come to mind- but these are exceptions. 

For the vast, vast majority of wines, lower alcohol wines have traditionally aged longer and better. Part of this equation of course is that lower alcohol wines, having started with lower sugar levels in the grapes, generally start out life with higher acidity. I have been drinking wine a long time now, and it is pretty clear to me that acidity is the cornerstone to a wine’s ability to age gracefully for a long period in the bottle and remain fresh and vibrant. And wines that age well are the ones that interest me the most. 

The transformation that a wine undergoes with bottle age is still one of the mysteries of wine- how it improves, what chemical reactions are taking place- all of these things are still unknown even with our advanced levels of science. But if the key fundamentals are in place in the wine when young, we do know that the wine will change and evolve and become more beautiful with age. And one of these keys is sound acidity.

When one thinks back or reads about the legendary Bordeaux wines of the first half of the twentieth century--the 1945 Mouton-Rothschild, the 1928 Palmer, the 1929 Latour or the 1900 Margaux--one of the glaring things that so many commentators fail to mention is how low in alcohol these wines were back then--probably between eleven and twelve percent, and they came from ripe vintages in those days! One of the chief reasons that they lasted so long was specifically because they were lower in alcohol-balanced wines that were able to stand the test of time. 

As Monsieur Bonneau has emphatically proven, it is not impossible to balance your wines at high degrees of alcohol, but it is a hell of a lot harder to do it, and for every Monsieur Bonneau who has been able to succeed with his formula, there are thousands who have tried and failed miserably. A perfect example of the differences between higher and lower levels of alcohol are the 1947 and the 1949 Cheval Blanc--both great wines, but the headier, almost Port-like 1947 is nowhere near as interesting to my palate as the lower alcohol, hauntingly ethereal 1949. I have been fortunate to drink both wines on several occasions, and even once had them served side by side in the same flight at a memorable dinner, and I would be willing to argue that the beautiful 1949 will in the end prove to be the longer-lasting and ultimately more interesting wine. And let me be the first to tell you, not every high alcohol wine is a 1947 Cheval Blanc in the making- no matter what you read elsewhere! 

I think that today high alcohol is one of the worst plagues in the world of wine, as it virtually guarantees that the wine in question will not stand the test of time in bottle. A lot of people might say “so what”, I want to drink my wines younger anyway, so what do I care about higher alcohol. Other than driving home from the dinner party, they may have a point. As long as there remains plenty of cellar-worthy, lower alcohol wines for those of us who want to age our wines, then it should not be a problem. 

In other words, if each individual wine exists in a vacuum, outside of the temporal world in which we live, then there is plenty of room for both kinds of wines. But the reality is that the new car in the driveway of the vigneron who let his grapes hang out on the vine until they were ready to fall off, and consequently was able to get a higher score (and more money) for his wine because some critic was suckered in by the black-purple color and the sweet, warming effects of alcohol on the palate which gave the wine a consistency of motor oil, then the odds are that a few vintages down the road, all of the nieghbors will be vacationing in September and picking their grapes in late October to try and make the same money and drive the same cars. - - John Gilman, author of the newsletter A View from the Cellar:  (From an interview with Gilman on the Dr. Vino website.)

John Gilman of A View From the Cellar on Indigenous Yeasts

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John Gilman, Author-Publisher of A View From the Cellar
Photo by Gerry Dawes©2007 / 

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Indigenous Yeasts

"The longer I drink, taste and write about wine, the more I am convinced that indigenous yeasts are a key fundament of great wine. It is not that it is impossible to make great wine with commercial yeasts, but these have to be strains that are engineered to be as unobtrusive and “transparent” as possible, so that the natural beauty of the wine that originates in the vineyard can be reproduced as faithfully as possible. 

But even the cleanest and clearest commercial yeast is not, in my opinion, going to quite match the complexity that comes with using indigenous yeasts. And most commercial yeasts these days are not engineered (or selected if you prefer the term) for their transparency, but rather to deliver specific flavor or aromatic spectrums in the wine, or more and more often, to be able to survive at higher levels of alcohol before dying off and ending the fermentation. 

It used to be that no yeasts could survive in solutions with alcohol above fifteen or so percent, but when you are trying to make a black-purple wine so that you can buy a new, black-purple Mercedes SUV, you need a “Rambo” yeast to do the job- one that can keep the fermentation going to sixteen and a half or seventeen percent. 

Otherwise, the winemaker is going to end up with more residual sugar than he or she desired (one of the dirty little secrets of the high octane school is that they are always looking for some residual sugar in their ostensibly “dry” wines), which may or may not effect which model of Mercedes they can buy when the new scores come out." -- From an interview with the great John Gilman, Writer-Publisher of A View From the Cellar, on the Dr. Vino website.

As usual, "The Professor" aka John Gilman, hits the native yeasts on the head.  Most of the small producers of The Spanish Artisan Wine Group use indigenous yeasts to ferment their wines.  That is what makes each wine so distinctly different from the other. - - Gerry Dawes, Gerry Dawes's Spain: An Insider's Guide to Spanish Food, Wine, Culture and Travel.