Friday, May 6, 2011

An amazing comparitive tasting of barrel samples...

I had an opportunity to taste some really unique wines last week that were used as a part of an education series designed to show some of the different ways winemakers can manipulate grapes via hang time, fermentation and aging. A virtual high-five goes out to Aaron Meeker of LDF Wine and Spirits for calling the winemakers and procuring these bottle samples. Big thanks also go out to Hirsch Vineyards and Robert Keenan for donating these most interesting wines.

2008 Nikolaihof and Alzinger Grüner Veltliners

The first two wines were examples of how a winemaker and/or vineyard manager can affect the grapes by allowing them to hang on the vine for an extended time before picking. These two wines are from the same vineyard, but the grapes that eventually made it into the Nikolaihof were picked one week earlier than the Alzinger grapes.

The 2008 Nikolaihof Grüner Veltliner Hefeabzug, Wachau shows a very floral/tropical nose with notes of coconut, peach and lime. The palate is lively and acidic with leesy/waxy, mineral-driven flavors and a long, clean finish. This is old school, biodynamic Grüner Veltliner at its best.

In contrast, the 2008 Weingut Alzinger Grüner Veltliner Federspiel Mühlpoint, Wachau reveals an obviously sweeter nose with orchard fruit notes of peach and pear. The palate comes across as being significantly richer with much lower acidity and an overall roundness which I thought was, frankly, easier to appreciate without food.

2008 Hirsch Vineyards Chardonnay

Next up were three examples of how a fermentation vessel can affect the sensory profile of a wine and a fourth bottle containing the blended finished product. The wine was the 2008 Hirsch Vineyards Chardonnay, Sonoma Coast. The sample that was fermented in glass was very primary and yeasty still exuding fermentation aromas and banana notes usually associated with carbonic maceration. It was rich and smoky yet still raw and untamed. Apparently, fermentation in small glass demijohns makes for a long, slow fermentation that leads to complex textural and aromatic nuances.

I figured the glass-fermented Chardonnay would be distressingly similar to the wine fermented in stainless steel but was I ever wrong! "Neutral" media can certainly impart wildly different aromas and flavors. The stainless steel fermented wine was visibly thicker and sweeter than the previous wine. On the palate it was all about lush tropical-pineapple fruit. Classic, pure, fruit-driven Chardonnay.

The final component of wine was fermented in oak and showed all of the buttery and smoky aromas and flavors that one expects from a full-throttle California Chardonnay. Considerable dill (American oak?). Fat and decadent, the finish goes on forever in this wine.

The finished wine is a tremendously complex, full-bodied California Chardonnay. Although harmonious and seamless, I love the fact that you can pick out nuances contributed by each of the components in the final blend. There's a bit of banana still in there from the glass fermentation. There's tropical fruit reminiscent of the portion fermented in stainless steel. And there's the buttery dill noted from the oak fermentation. A beautiful, balanced Chardonnay with great acidity that may very well reward 5-7 years in the cellar. Long, silky finish. If you're interested in the percentages in the finished product, this is from the winery:
Fermentation was done 11% in fourteen-gallon glass demijohns; 53% in stainless steel tanks; and 36% in oak. Total new oak was 16%. When the ferment went dry, half of the stainless wine was racked to neutral oak for aging.

2009 Robert Keenan Cabernet Sauvignon

Then I got to try barrel samples of 2009 Robert Keenan Cabernet Sauvignon, Spring Mountain District from three types of oak: new American, new French and 5 year old French.

The wine aged in new American oak (I don't know how long any of these samples had been in oak) showed the expected dill and Bourbon aromas with a touch of varnish and some rich black cherry notes on the palate. Overall quite tannic and oaky. Dare I say a bit harsh?

The barrel sample from the new French oak was creamy and rich with aromas and flavors of vanilla, licorice. A touch of green on palate but I suspect this was more a character trait of the Spring Mountain terroir than the French oak. Overall just a richer, more balanced wine.

The wine from the 5 year old French oak was by far the most perplexing wine of the bunch as it smelled and tasted more like the new American oak than the new French. Had I not known what kind of oak this was aged in, I would've sworn it was of American origin. A touch dilly with latex and high alcohol, this was quite tannic with with modest tart cherry flavors and screaming acidity. How the older French oak started to impart flavors and aromas typically associated with American oak is beyond me and really left me scratching my head looking for answers.

My goodness, what an educational experience! Once again, thanks to Aaron Meeker, Winemaker Ross Cobb of Hirsch Vineyards and Nils Venge, Winemaker at Robert Keenan Winery for putting this together and supplying us with these most fascinating components.

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