GEORGE BALLING: Fruit and oak

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Hang out with friends or family drinking wine and before minutes pass you will discover how varied people’s palates are when it comes to wine. As wine professionals, those of us that work in the business are no different. It has been said that the best way to get six different opinions on a wine is to ask two or three wine professionals what they think of it. We just completed our monthly events for May with Dave Merfeld, Winemaker at Northstar Cellars, in Walla Walla, and the premise stated above proved true once more. Merf, as he goes by, produces wines with great elegance and balance. His stated goal is to always let the quality of Washington grown wine grapes show through in the fruit flavors and never have oak barrel ageing or anything else in the winemaking process overshadow that fruit.

As these events go, some who attended embraced his approach, others not so much. That is OK. We all have our own tastes and we should never have to defend them. It did prompt some thoughts though, about wine varietals that do better with oak. The best way to think about this is to reflect on where the grapes come from in the “old world” and what their oak treatment is in those regions. My taste tends to agree with Merf’s take on the use of oak and hews pretty closely to the “old world” tendencies.

The white Bordeaux varietals of Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and Muscadelle are never aged or fermented in oak in Bordeaux. Most often a stainless steel tank is employed for fermentation and ageing, or occasionally a concrete vat may be used in France. I think this is good practice. While winemaking legend Robert Mondavi aged his Sauvignon Blanc in oak, calling it Fume Blanc, I have never really thought this approach did the great citrus flavors and aromas and crisp acids of these varietals justice. They simply do better with no oak.

Similarly the white Rhone varietals of Viognier, Marsanne, Roussanne, Ugni Blanc and others are not oaked in the Rhone Valley, and again this is good practice. When oak is deployed on these grapes, the already rich fruit becomes overdone and the wines lose their acid profile, causing them to be flabby and uninteresting.

Pinot Noir and Gamay Beaujolais, which grow in the Burgundy region in France, are both treated with great delicacy. Although Beaujolais is its own distinct region, it does fall into the larger Burgundy area, and these two red varietals grown here can be fragile and difficult to work with. It is one of the great ironies of the wine world that both grapes like to grow in cool, foggy climates where mold and rot develop so easily and the tight bundles and thin skins of these grapes allow mold and rot to flourish. The delicate natures of these varietals with light tannins from the thin skins do not handle the aggressive use of oak. While some oak is used in fermentation or ageing of Pinot Noir, in France, Oregon and other parts of the states, a soft touch is required. The grapes should not spend too much time in the barrel. A fair amount of used barrels should be deployed and “toast” levels should be modest for the wines to reach their full potential.

Sangiovese, the base grape in Chianti, Brunello di Montalcino, and many other blends produced in Tuscany, is another varietal that takes a delicate touch. Many of us expect Italian wines to be big, robust and rustic reds, and indeed there are those, but “Sangio” is a light-bodied grape that needs a light touch on the oak treatment. This is why in Italy, fermentation and aging is done in the huge oak casks used there; think the big container Lucille Ball stomped around in during the ‘I Love Lucy’ show. The larger the vessel, the less oak flavor is imparted on the wine. Here in the states, where Sangiovese is farmed, the winemakers often treat the wine very aggressively with oak, and the varietal is just not built for that, resulting in wines where about all you taste is the “wood.”

Winemakers, and all of us as wine consumers, have individual tastes where oak profiles appeal differently. We understand that, but experiencing all the fruit has to offer to the wine is vital, and with these varietals restraint is advised. Stop by the shop to discover which wines and winemakers get it and approach their creations accordingly.

If there is a topic you would like to read about or questions on wine you can email George@thedinnerpartyshop.com or make suggestions by contacting the Healthy Community section at the Coeur d’Alene Press.

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George Balling is co-owner with his wife, Mary Lancaster, of the dinner party — a wine and gift shop in Coeur d’Alene by Costco. The dinner party has won the award for best wine shop in North Idaho twice, including for 2018. George is also published in several other publications around the country. After working in wineries in California and judging many wine competitions, he moved to Coeur d’Alene with Mary more than 10 years ago to open the shop. You can also follow us on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/#!/dinnerpartyshop.

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