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?
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