American oak ‘not suited to Cabernet’

3rd March, 2016 by Darren Smith

American oak “does not match” with Cabernet Sauvignon, according to Brad Grimes, winemaker at Napa’s Abreu Vineyards.

Abreu winemaker Brad Grimes uses new French oak which he says gives a purer expression to the estate's Cabernet than America oak would (Photo: Abreu Vineyards)

Abreu winemaker Brad Grimes uses new French oak which he says gives a purer expression to the estate’s Cabernet than American oak would (Photo: Abreu Vineyards)

Speaking to the drinks business on a visit to the UK to promote the Abreu’s distribution in the UK through the Pol Roger Portfolio, Grimes said that American oak imparted a “dill” flavour which was not suited to Abreu’s style of Cabernet Sauvignon.

“In an ideal world we would be growing our own oak forests and using everything from our own property, but American oak does not match with our wines,” the winemaker said.

“American oak has a very different flavour, a sort of green dill component, which just doesn’t match with Cabernet.”

“Maybe some producers have figured out a way to use a small percentage of American oak to accent the wine in a way that they like … and there is some American oak that has been used with Zinfandel and Syrah, and some other varieties, and may match better with those varieties, but I’ve never tasted a Cabernet out of an American oak barrel that was at all interesting.

Owned by prominent Napa wine personality David Abreu, Abreu Vineyards produces Cabernet Sauvignons from single-vineyard sites: Madrona Ranch, Cappella, Howell Mountain, and Thorevilos. Other Bordeaux varietals are used in small proportions.

Five wines are produced in extremely small quantities – around 12,000 bottles in total – using meticulous sorting and co-fermentation of grapes. Madrona Ranch, Thorevilos, Capella and Howell Mountain are single-vineyard expressions, while Rothwell Hyde is a blend from all sites.

All five wines are available in the UK through Pol Roger Portfolio.

Grimes, who has worked for Abreu for 16 years following a career as a chef in Seattle, said that new French oak was far better suited the the Cabernets that Abreu produces, allowing for a “pure” expression of the wine and greater consistency than old oak.

The winemaker uses two primary coopers – Taransaud, based in Cognac, and Sylvain, based near St-Emilion. He uses two other small cooperages whose barrels “accent” those primary wood sources.

“We use new oak. For me new oak is very, very pure. And the toasting levels that we’re working with, the wine comes out expressing itself in the purest possible way,” Grimes said.

Abreu Madrona Ranch Cabernet Vine [Photo: Abreu Vineyards)

A Cabernet vine from Abreu’s Madrona vineyard. [Photo: Abreu Vineyards]

New and old

“I have done experiments where I had eight barrels – four barrels that were new and four that I’d just emptied, from exact same cooperages – so two Taransaud, two Sylvain; and then two Taransaud, two Sylvain.

“I put the wine in those eight barrels, tasting four together or two and two, and there was a consistency with the [new oak]. Each one of the barrels that was filled previously was totally different. There was a lack of consistency and more irregular flavours and aromas on the barrels that were used previously. Not bad, but just different.”

Grimes explained that Abreu ages its wines in wood for 26 to 28 months, then keeping the wine in bottle for up to two-and-a-half years before release.

The extended time in the new oak was vital to the integration and longevity of the wine, he explained.

“That second year in wood is so important to make sure that we’re not cutting the life of that wine short,” he said.

“We bottled well after harvest, so for the 2013 wines, I bottled those in January of 2016, so those were in wood for 28 months. It’s important to have that second 12 to 14 months for that wine to come together in that wood.

“Even right now, if you came into the cellar and you tasted the ’15… I’ve poured those for wine reviewers and other people who have come to taste and they all express the same notion – that I can’t believe that these wines are so approachable right now.

“But there is no reason that they shouldn’t be,” he went on. “It just goes back to the wine [being] fermented so cleanly.

“You should be able to taste that wine at any point in its life – when it’s on skins, the day after it goes in the wood, when it’s gone through malolactic, right after it’s sulphured, it does not matter – that wine should express itself any time that you choose to taste it.”

Abreu Vineyards joined the Pol Roger portfolio at the beginning of 2015 in a bid to capitalise on the resurgent interest in Californian wine from UK consumers.

Grimes said there seemed to have been a “sea change” in the UK in the past year or two, with fine wine consumers becoming far more accepting of wines beyond the classic Old World regions of Bordeaux and Burgundy.

For an in-depth analysis of California’s Cabernet connection click here.

The drinks business‘s California Report, which includes features on California Cabernet and Napa’s emergence as a fine wine hub, is also available to buy by following this link.

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22 Responses to “American oak ‘not suited to Cabernet’”

  1. Simon says:

    Someone better tell Paul Draper…

    • I was just thinking that….Paul’s wines at Ridge are pretty damn good. But hey, no problem stirring the pot. LOL. Personally I like to layer both oak regions…and only 20 to 30% new at most.

  2. RIchard says:

    The fact that Monte Bello is America’s only true first growth makes his statements pretty silly.

    • Corkboy says:

      America’s only true first growth?! Who granted them that status, Napoleon? Jim Laube? There is no such thing as an American First Growth.

  3. Craig Thornbury says:

    What would prompt a California cabernet winemaker to make such a point about A) his distaste for American oak in his cabernet, B) mention of two specific French coopers, and another two minor coopers going incognito, C) an aging regime which is still praised in the Old World but now often disparaged in the new, D) the dill character which has long since been minimized or eliiminated in the better American oak barrels, E) that a wine should taste just as good when recently fermented, or even recently sulphured, but is inconsistent in second-fill barrels? He does not say that he kicks the second year barrels out of his program. Is he perhaps disowning his new world roots, beckoning a connection to the most expensively produced wines of Bordeaux? This article is, after all, plainly promotional and targeted. Then, a change in tack– to quote the article, “Grimes said there seemed to have been a “sea change” in the UK in the past year or two, with fine wine consumers becoming far more accepting of wines beyond the classic Old World regions of Bordeaux and Burgundy…”
    And to say that these wines, which require years in barrel and in bottle before release, are just as approachable at any point in their long evolution, e.g. the 2015 menttioned, smacks of pure marketing. Surprise!
    I wish Mr. Grimes every success in his efforts to hit his price point.
    Disclaimer– I am a salesman. I obviously do not work for Taransaud or Sylvain, two cooperages which I respect and hold in high regard. I make my living selling wine barrels made of woods from mamy origins.
    I wish

  4. Greg Linn says:

    I would agree with a lot of what Brad has to say! Maybe he has not found the right American Oak, however I must part ways slightly as Mr. Draper has incorporated American Oak and others
    into his Ridge Monte Bello for years.I am not your expert when talking Cabernet as i make Pinot Noir however I have never found a better wine than ridge and in most vintages the wines are under 14% Alc. So their is no cover up to mask the nuances of the barrels used.

  5. Eric Baugher says:

    To each their own, but my preference is to use American oak that has been carefully selected from the top cooperages. “Dill” is certainly an undesirable flavor, and can be avoided if the American oak was carefully selected and seasoned. There are many American oak cooperages, the great majority haven’t figured out how to produce barrels with finesse. The few I use have figured it out, and “dill” is not found. Instead, a well-made American oak barrel, will lift fruit, add texture, and make for an exotic wine. It is important to temper the barrels before filling. In addition, a certain length of sur lees aging helps with oak integration. In my opinion, American oak is excellent for mountain grown cabernet and French oak is great for valley floor and Bordeaux. I always have a little bit to blind taste and compare against my best American barrels. In blind tasting, you’re pressed to find any substantial quality difference. Again, you’ve got to be very careful with who makes your American oak barrels and what forest it is sourced from. French oak is nice, but it tends to make the wine overly tannic and can mask the unique vineyard character due. Being in the new world, I’m proud to use American oak. It’s also great to limit the carbon foot-print of transporting barrels from so far away. Furthermore, I’ve tasted many French barrels over my time in the wine industry. I’ve tasted just as many bad French oak barrels as I have with some poorly made American.

  6. Rich says:

    Doesn’t Silver Oak produce Cab? Yes and they own an American oak cooperage!

  7. David Vergari says:

    Grimes takes care to point out that AO does not match up with ABREU wines. Too bad the title of the article does not. Generalizations like “American Oak not Suited to Cabernet” is disingenuous at best and ridiculously misleading. Just saying.

    • Craig Thornbury says:

      David, good to see your name pop up. I agree with you. My original comment turned up truncated a bit. “I wish…” that the author, and drinksbusiness, had not chosen a headline which implies a blanket rejection. I credit the winemaker, Mr. Brad Grimes, with saying first and foremost, “not suited to Abreu’s style of Cabernet Sauvignon.” I respect that distinction. We all have our preferences in style and taste And I would bet the wiines are pretty darn good as well. He certainly has done his homework in matching his grapes to his barrel program.. Best to you, Brad Grimes. Shame on the poor journalism which twisted your words.

  8. Thomas Jefferson says:

    Wine is subjective. He does not like American Oak; I do not like the overly ripe, alcoholic, and extracted international style. To each their own.

  9. Thomas Jefferson says:

    André Tchelistcheff used American oak.

  10. Jeff says:

    Silver Oak has always used American oak to age their wines. And those are some pretty fantastic Cabernets.

  11. Richard Brand says:

    Cudus to Brad Grimes for highlighting a major flaw in the Calif wine industry. I have made many different wines from winegrowers like Warren Dutton to Heitz Trailside and I have NEVER found American Oak to provide a satisfactory aroma, let alone flavor to California red wines. Always what I describe as “green” flavored which at first I believed to be due to a lack of stave drying. But now the US cooperage vendors have had time to let their wood dry like done in France and it still has that “green” taste.
    I’m now a grape grower, and we make extra efforts to impart a positive terroir flavors to our fruit. So I hate to see winemakers dumping our vineyards’ bounties into cooperage that is best suited to strong whiskey. Yes America oak is cheaper but so is the end product.
    BTW Paul Draper is an advocate of mostly neutral American oak which with Zin I find acceptable. But I have to admit that I loved what Dick Peterson and Doug Nalle among others did with Dry Creek Zin in older French oak cooperage. Thank Gorbechev for bringing us other European oak options.

  12. KenF says:

    I’ve participated in a lot of tastings comparing wines aged in American vs. French oak. Most of the wine has been Cabernet Sauvignon. I’ve never tasted the dill component mentioned here. And I HATE dill! It is was there I’d notice.

  13. Didn’t Know that Silver Oak used only American Oak…I’ll need to crack a bottle tonight for dinner….

  14. Mark C says:

    Well, if a single winemaker in Napa says that American Oak is not suited to Cabernet, then we should probably just take him at his word and blindly follow suit as an entire industry.

    Perhaps it’s not Brad Grime’s fault and he has the right to chose the oak that best matched his style and personal wine goals.
    It irks me that the Drink’s Business titles this article as an absolute statement.

  15. Morton Leslie says:

    It’s odd how often it is that everything European seems to be better than American…to certain Americans.
    Whatever it is, this seems to correlate more if it costs more.

  16. Gary Eberle says:

    Gee when I think back to Cabernets aged only in American oak, wines like the BVs from “65,”66, ’68( in my opinion the best Ca. Cab produced for about 2 decades)”70, and ’74 I find it hard to agree that American oak does not marry well with Cabernet. After over 4 decades of wine making I have found just the opposite. Also in my experience Cabernet left in “new barrels”, French or American , for 2 years come out reeking of oak. I sometimes think these wines should be labeled Quercus alba , Quercus robur. or perhaps Old Lumber Yard. I have the silly notion that the first, and most prominent, aroma you get from a wine is the aroma of that grape.

  17. My “Best of Class”, Chonicle 2016 Wine Competition, Cabernet Sauvignon, produced almost entirely with American Oak.

  18. Anthony Rose says:

    Penfolds Bin 707 Cabernet Sauvignon may not be to everyone’s taste but this 100 per cent Cabernet Sauvignon matured in 100% new American oak hogsheads has a pretty decent track record.

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