An Ode to Oak


I’m generally not an emotional guy.  Why then, am I having such a difficult time parting ways with the first two barrels that ever held my wine?

The time has come to cruelly determine which of our used oak barrels must be sent out to pasture, literally.  I’ve been through wars with these veteran barriques.  They’ve seen good wine, bad wine and everything in between.  Some have been a working fixture in our barn for eight years.  Now you must decide which old soldiers can no longer carry out their job, good luck with that!  This unceremonious send-off just doesn’t seem to befit such a valuable part of our winery.

Good oak is the winemaker’s not-so-secret weapon.  Sure they are expensive (our largest capital expense from year to year) but they are essential.  I’ve come to learn that new oak should never be taken for granted and never be used in overabundance.  Too much new oak can mask and possibly ruin the fine subtleties of an aging wine.  Restraint should always be exercised.

My attachment to each individual barrel is surely due to the small size of our operation.  Over time I become acutely aware of their “personalities” through weekly tasting and topping regimens.  Some are big softies, while others are boldly complex.  Some barrels make the retirement decision easy for me.  No amount of sterilization can rid them of the contaminants they’ve accumulated over the years, so out the door they go.  But what about the barrel who’s only knock is it’s old age and bland neutrality?  That is the dilemma staring me in the face right now.

Back in 2004, under the guidance of Creekside Estate Winery winemakers Rob and Craig, I assembled a two barrel blend of Cabernet Sauvignon sourced from our vineyard.  With a pool of twelve barrels to choose from, we experimented with 50L from here and 25L from there until we all agreed upon a blend that I could confidently open a winery with.  It was decided that the wine should be housed in a couple of beautiful, two year old French oak barrels made by Burgundian cooper Claude Gillet.  The wine would stay cloaked in these barrels until 2006, when we bottled our first Five Rows release – the 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon.

Those same two Gillet barrels proved tremendously versatile with each successive vintage of Five Rows Cab Sauv.  What they lost in intensity each season, they gained in character and elegance.  This past week I racked some 2009 Cab Sauv from the Gillet twins and was pleasantly surprised at the finished product.  I didn’t hold out much hope for the 2009 Cab at this time last year, but an additional 12 months spent soothing in neutral oak really did the trick.  We’ll bottle the 2009 Cab Sauv this spring.

So there they sit after ten long years of service, empty and willing…but sadly there is no wine to fill them.  Now the decision is upon me.  No more stalling filibusters, it’s time to take these two out behind the barn and “pop the bung” for good.  I swear I’d have an easier time putting down Old Yeller.  At least he had rabies.

One day soon I’ll crack a bottle of 2004 Cab Sauv in their honour.  Few times will I enjoy a bottle more.

barrel graveyard

A Dinner With Friends


A winemaker prepares for a “Winemaker’s Dinner” with the hope that his or her wines will show their best and contribute positively to the evening’s festivities and fare.  My pre-dinner jitters were immediately settled when I walked into Treadwell’s on Saturday and was greeted by so many familiar faces.  It was like walking into the warm atmosphere of a family dinner.

As we drove to Port Dalhousie, I’d managed to convince myself that by now people must be sick of hearing me rattle on about leaf-removal techniques in Pinot Gris or the benefits of whole-bunch pressing in Riesling, but surprisingly that was not the case!  People expressed genuine interest in hearing the behind the scenes viticultural and enological practices that we employ at Five Rows.  I found this very encouraging and flattering.  But let’s not kid ourselves, the people came to hear Howie and Wilma tell their stories – and those two never disappoint!

As one might anticipate, the true star on this night was the food.  James, Jason and staff completely outdid themselves, coming up with a stunning menu that left everyone raving.  The liveliest debate was reserved for deciding which course and pairing was our favourite.  I was partial to the Pinot and Tuna.

It’s always amazing to me that our wines just seem to smell and taste more intense when served at Treadwell’s.  Perhaps it’s the heightened anticipation of the senses or maybe its the proper serving temperature and stemware.   Whatever it is, I was relieved that each wine seemed to go over well.

I decided to use this group as guinea pigs (they seemed rather willing) to demo a blending trial of our yet to be released 2009 Pinot Noir.  The 2009 vintage was a dream for Niagara Pinot growers, who were treated to perfect ripening conditions for a change.  I put together a blend of 85%  2009  Pinot and  5% from each of three different barrels of 2010 Pinot.  The blend composition was determined based on some areas where I felt the wine could use a lift.  One of the 2010 barrels was Clone 777 (first crop), which added an interesting fresh raspberry dimension to the aromatics.  It plays well off the typical burgundian notes always present in the  Clone 115 Old Vine Lowrey Pinot.

We decided to pit this 2009 blend against our 2007 Pinot Noir to see how it stacked up.  I felt that the 2007 had gained some aromatic complexity since I last tried it, but it’s lively tannins tell me that this wine could still benefit from a bit more time in the cellar.  It was agreed that the 2009 blend really showed promise, and some people even preferred it over the 2007!  We will bottle the 2009 (maybe this exact blend) in April, with a release anticipated for early in the summer.

Thanks to all who attended for making this such a memorable experience!