Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Biodynamic and natural wine producers: What's up with French oak?

Biodynamics and "natural" wine share some philosophy. Adherents of both believe, essentially, that a wine should represent the land from which it's made.

Biodynamics takes it to a level of religious practice. One tenet is that nothing should come from outside the farm. The current natural wine movement, as depicted in the new documentary "Wine From Here," generally agrees with that idea.

So the most provocative question from the audience at the Q&A after the film's first public showing was this:
If you believe in making a local, low-environmental-impact product, why use French oak?
I wish I recognized the Australian-sounding bloke who asked it, because it's a great question, and it left some of the winemakers on stage scrambling for an answer.

Tony Coturri had the best response: He uses redwood tanks for fermentation. It's a local tree and the tanks can last decades.

Kevin Kelley, founder of the Natural Process Alliance, which is one of the most purist wineries I know, said, "I totally agree with you that oak is an additive. I need to use barrels because if you put wine in stainless steel, it's the worst thing for it. Wine needs to breathe. It needs to evolve. I buy used barrels from wineries I trust. American oak is more invasive in wine than French oak. I won't use it. Currently I'm moving toward acacia barrels. I'm having great luck with acacia."

Paul Draper, president of Ridge Vineyards, once told me that with American oak, the key is to source it carefully; to get planks that have been air dried for a long time. If you do that, you don't get the intense vanilla and woody character that American oak is often derided for.

If we really want to get serious about locavorism, shouldn't we do that? We have plenty of oak trees in this country. Do we need to ship French and Hungarian oak through the Panama Canal, expending fuel and creating CO2?

I'm just being provocative here. Like most mainstream wine critics, I love the taste of French oak, particularly in Chardonnay.

But increasingly I believe my favorite wines, all else being equal, have been fermented not in wood or stainless steel, but in concrete, which gives much better mouthfeel than steel, and unlike oak doesn't seem to add any flavors of its own.

Steve Edmunds of Edmunds St. John agrees, saying, "I've worked with barrels 15 and 20 years old where I could still taste the effect of the oak. I've really gotten away from using oak altogether and I'm using concrete."

That said, one of my favorite wine quotes ever came from Chateau Angelus owner Hubert de Bouard, who said: "Haut-Brion is made with stainless steel, Margaux with wood, Petrus with concrete. Sometimes they make good wines. For me, the vat is the vat, the wine is the wine."

Which brings up the original question again: If you're willing to take all kinds of risks that could make worse wine -- wild yeast ferments, low sulfites, and buying vineyard land in areas that might not be ideal for grapes -- why not go local in your choice of fermentation vessel?

What do y'all think? Would you rather drink a product made in a locally produced vessel, or a wine that has the delicious, toasty, stone-ground whole-wheat flavor of expensive French oak?

Follow me on twitter: @wblakegray.


SUAMW said...

So..... once we are using all locally-sourced materials and ingredients, how do we know that the finished wine "represents the land from which it's made" - as opposed to microbial contamination, bug taint, oxidative winemaking or other cellar sloppiness?

John M. Kelly said...

Blake it's a valid question, but I'm not sure the natural philosophy has ever necessarily encompassed the "all and only local ingredients" and "minimal carbon footprint" philosophies. They no doubt all may be held in concert by certain individual producers, but as you point out this may lead to irresolvable conflicts.

The concrete egg (locally produced, including recycled materials) does look like an interesting way to go - for certain wines. I have not tasted an inspiring Pinot out of one yet.

NakedJason said...

If we are going to extremes like this, then why not native varietals? Why use vinifera, if you are making wine in the U.S.?

SUAMW said...

John. What if the raw ingredients necessary to make the concrete for the concrete egg come from several hundred miles away from AVA where one grows and makes wines?

Anonymous said...

NakedJason - I think that would take Europe out of the running for making wine as well since most of it's vines are planted on American rootstock.

W. Blake Gray said...

Oh, Naked Jason and Anon, those are really, really interesting points.

John M.: I'd have to go back through my notes to see if I could find one. Maybe concrete is slower to come to traditional Pinot areas, stemming from the fact that Burgundy prefers used oak.

The egg, to me, is taking a traditional -- and great -- fermentation idea and making an expensive contraption out of it. I love wines out of squat, ugly old concrete tanks in Spain and France. Not that the egg might not work as well. But it's like $20 pork rinds.

Anonymous said...

I would rather see oak trees in France cut down than oak trees in Sonoma and Napa cut down. Selfish I know. Used redwood and stainless work pretty well don't they?

Stephen said...

I want a wine that tastes good and doesn't cost a lot. We open a bottle for dinner most nights. I buy from the West Coast, Italy, Spain, and France predominately. I agree with Angelus. The wine is in the winemaker.

Mike said...

Nomblot from Burgundy was the first company to produce the concrete egg commercially.

Mark Cochard said...

Blake, So while we are at, it in order to make concrete tanks I assume cement must be used. Cement clinker production contributes about 4% of global total CO2 emissions. http://www.global-greenhouse-warming.com/cement-CO2-emissions.html Trees are sustainable cement is not.
FWIW we use american oak grown and coopered in PA about 230 miles from the winery. We also use French and Hungarian.

Anonymous said...

I am a big fan of Paul Draper's method. They let the barrels air dry for, I believe, two years on the Monte Bello site before they ever see any grape juice.

Hank said...

Plastic. It's the all-American terroir.

Anonymous said...

What's in the french oak that gives its distinctive character? Is it the wood itself(more or less porous, etc..), or the treatment of the wood (levels of toasting, etc...). If it's the latter, it seems to me quite possible to reproduce it locally. I am part of a blind tasting group and have great difficulty identifying the differences between the two. My palate is not very sensitive to the subtleties of oak yet(to my frustation). I can detect oak in the wine but find hard to say if it's american or french.
Very interesting topic to which I don't have an answer

Franco Ziliani said...

Blake I quoted your excellent article, really a nice provocation, in today issue of weekly WineWebNews press review I write for A.I.S. Italian Sommelier Association

WineRoland said...

Like the history of mankind, the wine ones isn't static, but it moves across years, across centuries. The barrique is used since 6 centuries in France. Where start the wine's history? With the Persian? With the Greece? After or before phylloxera? Natural (of biodynamic) don't mean without oak or without sulfite at all.
It means no abuse of them.

Alder Yarrow said...

Funny that it would be an Australian who asked this. I was talking with Dave Powell at Torbreck in the Barossa a couple of years ago, and asked him what he thought of Biodynamics. He said he didn't have much time for it, but noted that when it came to a closed, local ecosystem, what the hell was he supposed to do? "Cows aren't native to Australia, and for that matter, neither are grapevines. If you wanted to be truly biodynamic here you'd have to take a didgeridoo and stuff it full of kangaroo shit and bury that in the vineyard."

Anonymous said...

In reply to suamw comment. It's easy to tell who Is sloppy and making bacterial unbalanced wine because they don't sell. My problem with the natural wine movement in America is that it is being portrayed as something that is new and different. Unbalanced ( ie to much bret, va, oak) wines are seem to be acceptable just because they are natural. Making wine without chemicals is not a new concept. The marketing of the term "natural" however is. The constant reference to "natural" wine by some journalists is doing a greater harm than good and appears to be more for self benefit than for the greater good of the industry. I make my wine without chemicals and any other addition. In no way would I ever market it as something other than what it is, good sound wine. In my mind there are 2 types of wine, Wine and chemical wine. I am also the Aussie guy who made the comment in San Fransisco. I was only using oak as an example to argue that making ethically sound wine for some producers is a marketing tool. In this, the wine is judged and drunk on how it's been made not what's in the glass. Of course wine should taste better if its not had any chemicals added in the vineyard or winery. But a bad wine is still a vad wine and should not be made good because of it. Please excuse any grammatical error as im trying to author this on a bumpy bus trip with an iPhone between wineries in Sicily.