November 3, 2009

Old School, Oak Style

Today, an old school experiment. A straightforward investigation into wood; oak, in particular.

Stephen Ross Dooley is a Central Coast négociant who specializes in (mostly) single-vineyard Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. He produces wines under the Stephen Ross Wine label. Among these is a Chardonnay made from "four rows from Block J at Bien Nacido Vineyard" in the Santa Maria Valley.

In 2006, the Bien Nacido Chardonnay was bottled in two formats. One was barrel fermented (33% new French oak, the rest once-used barrels). The other -- designated methode moderne -- was fermented in stainless steel and saw no oak at all.

We drank the two wines side by side.

The differences were stark and started as soon as the wine hit the glass. The oaked wine was a deeper, richer yellow. The moderne wine was pale, with shimmering hints of green. The differences continued on the nose. The oaked wine had a faint vanilla tinge. The moderne offered brighter floral and citrus aromatics. Both showed a similar, pastry dough, evidence of malolactic fermentation.

On the palate, the moderne was racy. The acidity was nervy and biting. There was a strong mineral element throughout, though strongest on the attack and then again on the long finish. The fresh apple and nectarine flavors were like biting into crisp, just under-ripe fruit. The oaked wine, meanwhile, was more subdued, but also more structured. It had greater depth, felt denser on the palate. The mineral element was significantly absent and the acidity was more controlled. It was the richer, more balanced of the two.

It's hard to pick a favorite here. I think it's more of a Rorschach thing, where the choice says more about the drinker than the drink. The wine fermented in stainless steel was untamed and wild, offering what felt like direct access to those 4 rows of Block J. But the wine from the barrel presented clear refinement and sophistication, with none of the caustic, roughness around the edges of the unruly sister.

The obvious concluding metaphor I might employ is sexist and adolescent. So I'll resist conjuring it. But here's a hint.

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