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Bo Barrett: New oak “kills” flavour

Bo Barrett, chief winemaker at Château Montelena in California, has spoken out against American winemakers’ overuse of new oak, saying it “kills” the flavour.

Bo Barrett
Bo Barrett

Speaking during a vertical tasting of Château Montelena Cabernet in London this week organised by Bancroft Wines, Barrett said: “New oak is like garlic or chili in cooking; if you use too much of it you kill the flavour.

“Americans are suckers for sugar and that’s why wood is such a big thing in the US, but we only use 20-25% new oak at Montelena and are sticking to our guns.”

He hinted that some of his Napa Valley neighbours were using “200% new oak” in order to try and get 100 point scores from Robert Parker, with the sugar in the wood helping to offset the bitterness that results from a high abv.

The 2007 "Goldilocks" vintage
The 2007 “Goldilocks” vintage

While keen to make his wines less aggressive and more approachable, Barrett is concerned that he may have gone too far down the polished route.

“Our 2009 vintage was so supple and modern, I’d like it to be gutsier for a young Cab,” he said.

“Cabernet should always have a bit of grit and texture when young, so I’m looking at taking our style back to the wines we were making in the early noughties, bringing the grip back by being a bit rougher during pressing,” he added.

Barrett described 2007 as a “Goldilocks” vintage in California as everything was “just right”.

“If you didn’t make good wine in California in 2007 you should be doing something else for a living. We’re spoilt in Napa because we have such great weather, but we’re a bunch of crybabies complaining about the drought at the moment,” he said.

Barrett feels the argument for old vines in California is overplayed: “Old vines only really work with Zinfandel. Chardonnay vines tend to die after 20 years and it’s the same deal with Cabernet. They are only economically viable for a maximum of 25 years,” he said.

In terms of the 2008 film Bottle Shock, which told the story of the historic 1976 Judgement of Paris tasting where American wines famously trumped their French counterparts, Barrett described the film as “80% Hollywood and 20% fiction.”

Chris Pine as Bo Barrett in the 2008 film, Bottle Shock
Chris Pine as Bo Barrett in the 2008 film, Bottle Shock

Bottle Shock is the single best commercial we never paid for. It’s brought a new generation of customers through the door – we now have up to 400 visitors on a Saturday, a few of whom think the winery is a film set,” he joked.

“While a lot of it is inaccurate, its heart is in the right place – it’s essentially a love story to Californian wine,” he added.

As for Chris Pine’s portrayal of Barrett, he said: “They made my character flakey but I got all the chicks so it was okay. They got my hair wrong though – they gave me long locks but I was rocking a fro at the time.”

The same year Bottle Shock was released, the sale Château Montelena to Cos d’Estournel’s owner Michel Reybie fell through.

“It ended up being a great stroke of luck because it allowed my father to let go enough for us to be able to modernise the estate, replant and build a new cellar. The last five years have been the most exciting and fruitful of Montelena’s history,” Barrett said.

Château Montelena is to release a Sauvignon Blanc this year, marking the first new wine in its range for 22 years.

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