Back from Oregon

My blog has been quiet over the last week. That’s because I was out in Oregon trying pinot noir and pinot gris primarily. The coast where i was staying was really wet and cold. Not good grape growing area, but as soon as you move inland a bit, say around McMinnville, the weather warms up nicely. I was able to try wines from the $11 – $85 range, and both ends of the range were excellent. On the main page of i will be providing reviews for the wines that I really enjoyed, but for the moment, to whet your appetite, here are a few recommendations:

Rex Hill Reserve Pinot Noir, 2006. This wine is produced by the winemaker barrel sampling and picking the best barrels to blend. This wine was medium garnet. Violet and plum aromas. Violets, ginger, cloves, and vanilla flavour. US$42

Sokol Blosser Dundee Hills Pinot Noir, 2006. 2006 was a hot year in Oregon so all wineries have very ripe fruit and a larger volume of wine produced. This wine was light garnet in colour. Spicy, strawberry, smoky, vanilla and cherry aromas. Spicy, light oak, with a cherry finish. US$38

Redhawk Vineyard and Winery Redhawk Red. This is a popular table wine for this winery. It is a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. This wine was dark garnet in colour. Plum, currant and dark fruit aromas. Sweet black fruits, soft tannins and long length on the palate. US$11 (an unbelievable price)


Oak barrels

Did you know that oak barrels tend to be the second biggest expense for a winery, after the cost of the grapes? Oak barrels from France are the most expensive, with the price being US$1000 and up. Less expensive barrels from the USA go for between US$300 – $500 a barrel. Eastern Europe also makes oak barrels, at a price between the USA and France barrel prices.

In France, there are several different forests where the oak trees are harvested: Allier, Limousin, Nevers, Trancais and Vosges. It has been said that barrels produced in France have less influence on the flavours of a wine, compared to American barrels. This is due in part to the tighter grain of French oak compared to American oak. There is also the differences in barrel production.

In France, the coopers let the wood air dry for 24 months, while in the United States the wood is kiln dried in a shorter time period. The French coopers split the wood along the grain of the wood to make the staves, while in the United States the staves are produced by sawing the wood. It has been determined that splitting the staves causes the wood to impart less flavour in the wine. Some American coopers are now using the traditional French approach to cooperage and producing more subtle barrels.

Some of the flavour from the barrels comes from “toasting” the barrels. A winemaker can order a Light, Medium, or Heavy toast for a barrel. The decision regarding amount of charring is made based on the grape variety used and the style of wine desired.

For less expensive wines, buying new French or American oak barrels is out of the question. So what can a winemaker do? During the fermention, the winemaker can add oak chips, or have oak staves in the tank. This gives a big whack of oak flavour, but doesn’t integrate as nicely as barrel aging.

Also barrel aging allows a slow interaction between the wine and air from the outside, softening the wine. So through a one year period, a barrel will lose a few bottles of wine to evaporation. This lost amount is called the “Angels share”. Every few months the winemaker will top up his/her barrel with wine to prevent too much air in the barrel. That’s all for now on oak barrels. Something to think about when you open a bottle of oaked California chardonnay. Enjoy!