I was listening to a fascinating podcast -- Levi Dalton's "I'll Drink to That" -- about the evolution of cabernet sauvignon in Napa Valley. Dalton was interviewing Ray Coursen, founder of Elyse Winery, who has been around to see a lot of style changes.
Coursen said that in the old days growers couldn't get cabernet to ripen and had to plant vineyards too far south. Global warming has changed that and today the northern vineyards are producing more alcoholic wines. That and the increased use of new French oak barrels has created a new flavor profile. In chardonnay, those coconut, clove and vanilla flavors come from the oak; in red wine, you taste vanilla, mocha, caramel, toffee and spice.
Coursen said that in 2000 he experimented with less oak influence and found his wines "old school Napa Valley." Only 60 percent of the wine was exposed to oak and part of it was put back into old barrels just to round off the flavors. In addition, Coursen kept the wine in bottle for another 18 months before it was released.
I too enjoy wines less exposed to new barrels. They still have the tannins, although they are more fine, but the wines are approachable and unmasked. Classic.
I had just tasted through a bunch of Napa Valley cabernets, so it was interesting to see who was still putting all of their wine in new French oak. There weren't many -- in fact, most of the producers were exposing well under 50 percent of their wine to new oak.