New Oak and Pinot Noir

I love Pinot Noir. I do. There is always a bottle on our table, even if it's the sparkling version. Lately, however, I'm becoming more than a little frustrated with my favorite grape.

The 2007 California Pinot Noir vintage was heralded as fantastic for most of the state. It was an easy year; you could pick whenever you pleased, with no major weather looming. Ripening was steady, and flavors developed well before sugars (at least in our neck of the woods). So why, WHY, does 90% of the California Pinot Noir that I've been drinking just taste like a new oak barrel?

Bottle after bottle we've been pulling out of our cellar. Brands that were very elegant and showcased some gorgeous fruit in 2006 are oak bombs in 2007. Big-name brands that we are "lucky" enough to get an allocation of, to smaller, less known producers, all seemed to kick up the new oak regimen in 2007. And, to be honest, I'm tired of it.

Pinot Noir is delicious right out of the vineyard. It's like going to the farmers' market and grabbing your favorite berries and squishing them all up. In wine form, without being clobbered by oak, it's got fruit, spice, earthiness, and so much more. When we harvest I eat handful after handful of Pinot berries for an impromptu breakfast. They're amazing. Even with the seeds.

So WHY does everyone think that Pinot needs to taste like a barrel? Yes, 2007's are relatively young, but in many there's not enough acidity to prove to me that they'd get any better in bottle. These wines are too oaky to pair with our dinner and too oaky for me to sip before or after. I have plenty of barrel-staves-turned-BBQ-fodder that I could use as toothpicks if I wanted, but you don't see me whittling all night.


Here at Foursight we use a much lighter oak regimen: 20-30% new on most bottlings, and we make one Pinot Noir with not a single new oak barrel (our Zero New Oak blend). Yes, I get that it's our style and preference, and not universal (wine would be no fun if we all liked the same thing). However, knowing how gorgeous and expressive the fruit can be, my plea to put out into the universe is this: let the Pinot shine through! Give the fruit a chance! I promise, not only will your winery bank accounts look better (those new barrels are expensive!) but you may draw in a whole new customer segment by balancing fruit and oak.

Meanwhile, I'll continue to pop corks and likely rant and rave about it. Hopefully I'll find a few more bottles that surprise me.


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