Napa Winemaker Throws Shade at American Oak

Posted by Keith Wallace

Wine Barrels at Vinology
American Oak Barrels at the Wine School

Abreu winemaker Brad Grimes uses new French oak when aging Cabernet Sauvignon. He says American oak does not make for a good match.

Speaking to the drinks business on a visit to the UK to promote the Abreu’s distribution in the UK through the Pol Roger Portfolio, Grimes said that American oak imparted a “dill” flavor which was not suited to Abreu’s style of Cabernet Sauvignon.

“In an ideal world, we would be growing our own oak forests and using everything from our own property, but American oak does not match with our wines,” the winemaker said.

“American oak has a very different flavour, a sort of green dill component, which just doesn’t match with Cabernet.”

“Maybe some producers have figured out a way to use a small percentage of American oak to accent the wine in a way that they like … and there is some American oak that has been used with Zinfandel and Syrah, and some other varieties, and may match better with those varieties, but I’ve never tasted a Cabernet out of an American oak barrel that was at all interesting.

Owned by prominent Napa wine personality David Abreu, Abreu Vineyards produces Cabernet Sauvignons from single-vineyard sites: Madrona Ranch, Cappella, Howell Mountain, and Thorevilos. Other Bordeaux varietals are used in small proportions.

Five wines are produced in minimal quantities – around 12,000 bottles in total – using meticulous sorting and co-fermentation of grapes. Madrona Ranch, Thorevilos, Capella, and Howell Mountain are single-vineyard expressions, while Rothwell Hyde is a blend from all sites.

Grimes, who has worked for Abreu for 16 years following a career as a chef in Seattle, said that new French oak was far better suited the Cabernets that Abreu produces, allowing for a “pure” expression of the wine and greater consistency than old oak.

The winemaker uses two primary coopers – Taransaud, based in Cognac, and Sylvain, based near St-Emilion. He uses two other small cooperages whose barrels “accent” those primary wood sources.

“We use new oak. For me, new oak is very, very pure. And the toasting levels that we’re working with, the wine comes out expressing itself in the purest possible way,” Grimes said.

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