At the 2014 Rhone Rangers event, I tasted wine made by one of the premier Syrah producers in California, Terre Rouge. Winemaker Bill Easton has been making Syrah in the Sierra Foothills for over thirty years and his wines are age-able, structured, and food-friendly versions of the variety I love so. One of the more interesting things about tasting the wines of Terre Rouge is that one can taste Syrah grown at differing elevations. Those “in the know” know about Terre Rouge.
I had an interesting discussion that day with Bill’s right hand man and tasting room manager, Doug Bellamy. Here’s what I discovered in talking with Doug. The least expensive version of Bill’s wine (Les Cotes de L’Ouest) is also the one that sees the least amount of oak. As the price and supposed quality of vineyard sources progresses, the wines see more oak until one gets to the highest level of Syrah that Terre Rouge offers, the Ascent, which sees 100% new oak. My question after the tasting was, if the fruit for the Ascent is so expensive and of such high quality, why would one want to mask it with so much new oak? Why not let the fruit shine through with neutral oak?
Bill’s comment was that the fruit from these higher level sites, like the Ascent because of their aromatic intensity, can handle some new oak and still shine through. As the wines are built for aging, the oak integrates over time adding complexity and body to the wine.
Now, it’s no secret that the subject of oak is controversial among winemakers and aficionados. I tend to come down on the side of neutral oak aging but I’ve had a lot of good Syrah that had as high as 30% new oak. So far, for my palate, I’ve found that Syrah from cooler sites with complex aromas and high levels of acidity seem to be able to handle more new oak than warmer sites. Wines with higher alcohol and less acidity and structure, combined with new oak, have a tendency to become flabby and overly jammy. The reverse, of course, is also true. I’ve had warmer style Syrahs with relatively high levels of alcohol that I’ve enjoyed (I know!) because they’ve had neutral oak.
The question of how oak integrates is also a controversial one, and I’ve heard vociferous arguments from both sides. Some people have said that oak simply does not integrate while others have argued that it most certainly does. In my own experience it’s been difficult to tell because I’m not tasting an older wine side-by-side with the earlier version, so it’s hard to see how it’s changed.
Incidentally Terre Rouge has a beautiful tasting room.
Bill wanted to prove to me that the new oak used on his Syrah integrated over time so he invited me up to the tasting room near Plymouth, CA to taste some older vintages. Unfortunately the only weekend we were available Bill was not, but my wife and I were left in good hands with Doug Bellamy. Doug poured the 2005 and 2008 High Slopes Syrah and the 2005 and the 2008 Sentinel Oak. Both wines see 30% new oak and both vintages were bottled and picked in the same way. Each wine had an alcohol level of 14.5%.
I’ll start with the Sentinel Oak:
My first impression of these wines was that they are rich and restrained. I know it sounds like an oxymoron but that was the feeling I got. The oak lends a power to the mid-palate but the fruit has good acidity and tannin.
The 2005 was more of a cooler climate style, great acidity, and the oak definitely seemed more integrated. It was a tad drier and more tannic on the back end. Beautiful wine with classic plum and black olive Syrah character.
As the name implies, The High Slopes Syrah comes from more elevated vineyards in the foothills region. The 2008 was fuller in the mouth than the ’05 and the oak did seem a little too present for my palate. The 2005, on the other hand, was more my style. It invoked the Northern Rhone with its salty olive and tobacco character. Bright and fresh aromas of plum and apricot, mixed with gravel and hints of red meat. Fresh on the palate too, a lively finish with sweet but mouth-drying tannins and a tiny bit of heat coming through. Elegant and powerful. Oak is present but integrated.
So, the answer to the initial question. Yes, oak can integrate over time (at least in the Terre Rouge wines) and if you are a winemaker who makes wines meant to age or to be held back upon release, maybe it makes sense to use some new oak to soften the tannins in Syrah and lend body to the mid palate. Most consumers don’t hold their wine back before consumption though so I’d argue, as much as I loved Bill’s wines, it seems somewhat of a esoteric approach if you don’t expect the wine to hit its stride for ten years. I admire that in Terre Rouge though and obviously with thirty years in the business it’s a model that hasn’t exactly hurt their bottom line.
I’d like to add one more wine to the discussion:
The Terre Rouge Syrah Les Cotes de L’Ouest Syrah which is their least expensive and their Syrah that’s meant to be enjoyed earlier and sees no new oak. I love this wine. In fact, I love it just as much as the 2005 High Slopes but for different reasons. It’s fresh and smells and tastes of unadulterated Syrah. It has pepper and savory black olive aromas that are so cool climate Syrah. I love its lift of acidity on the mid-palate and its clean, fresh fruit profile.
So I guess the bottom line for Terre Rouge wines for me is, if you buy the upper echelon bottlings, WAIT. In the meantime drink a lot of their widely available Cotes de L’Ouest.