Au Revoir, American Oak

by Linda Murphy

Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon makes the shift to 100 percent French oak barrels

The greatest cabernets in the world share a common thread. From Château Pétrus and Château Lafite Rothschild in Bordeaux to Colgin and Harlan Estate in Napa Valley, all are aged exclusively in French oak barrels.

From day one, Jordan was an homage to First Growth Bordeaux. The French mindset was infused into all aspects of Jordan, from the design of the chateau and dining room to the grapes planted at the estate and the winemaking methods used to craft elegant, old-world-style wines.

With the release of the 2015 Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, Jordan has come full circle in its promise to honor French traditions in America by aging the wine in all French oak barrels for the first time in history. Winemaker Rob Davis, who just completed his 43rd harvest at Jordan, assures the style of Jordan Cabernet has not changed, though its complexity has deepened.

“The decision to transition from the blend of American and French oak to 100 percent French oak barrels was a natural progression in our quest to make every vintage better than the last,” Davis explained. “French oak, with its greater array of complex tannins and much greater porosity, lends itself much more to the black fruits and deeper, richer flavors we’ve achieved through new vineyards.”

The obvious question is, what took so long, especially when the majority of the world’s finest Bordeaux-style red wines are aged in French oak?

According to Davis, the Jordan grapes simply weren’t ready for all tonnellerie française until the last decade.

When John Jordan took the reins in 2005, Davis created a prototype of his dream Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon from that vintage, using only his top 25 percent of grapes from the blend, aged entirely in French oak barrels from a particular forest in central France. This “Super Blend” was created to show the potential for elevating quality even higher while staying true to the Jordan house style. “I love it,” Jordan said after his first taste in 2008. “I wish we could make it all taste like this.”

“We can make a blend like this that will represent our total production because the grape growers we’re working with now have vineyard soils similar to the top premier cru classé wines,” Davis said. “I just need a few years to do that.”

Jordan gave Davis latitude to continue refining the vineyard sources, focusing on finding sites with the ideal soils and locations for growing exceptional cabernet and merlot grapes (see “The Art of Blending” in vol. #7). By 2012, the flavor concentration and natural tannins were so beautiful in the young wines, Davis had his winemaking staff put together two blends: one with the standard American and French oak medley and one solely French oak. Hands down in a blind tasting, everyone chose the 100 percent French oak blend.

“2012 was really a turning point,” Davis said. “That’s when John gave us the green light to make the move to all French.”

The full transition took another three years, as new American oak barrels, which are filled three times during their lifespan in the Jordan cellar, completed their cycle before being retired.

Tasting the Difference

Even though French barrels possess more tannin, American oak is known for bringing more aggressive aromas of dill and coconut to red wines; French oak is considered more subtle, imparting spice aromas and a silky texture. French oak’s tannin profile harnesses the sterner nature of the fruit tannins found in richer, broadshouldered cabernet fruit—just the opposite of what one would expect.

The tannins from the French oak have a strong attraction to the fruit tannins—there’s a natural affinity between the two. The result in the glass? The wine tastes softer and richer in the mouth and is longer in the finish—attributes found in top Bordeaux and California’s best cabernets.

American oak played a vital role in Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon for decades, masking the herbaceous character in the wine—a result of the challenging soil types found at many estate vineyard blocks. Once those blocks were removed from Jordan winemaking and new grower vineyards that abound in blackberry and cassis fruit were added, there was nothing to cover up.

“Once we stopped including grapes from the valley floor in our blends,” Davis said, “we found that the American oak was overpowering the beautiful dark fruit in the young wines while French oak elevated the fruit.”

American Oak’s Roots in California Wine

Winery founders Tom and Sally Jordan envisioned a silky cabernet sauvignon that would pay equal homage to Jordan’s inspiration and origin: a 50-50 blend of French and American oak barrels for aging. Tom Jordan believed, as did other California winemaking pioneers, that while Bordeaux-like wines were the goal, their versions should make use of U.S.-made barrels, as both a point of differentiation from France and a show of patriotic pride.

Another major factor in this decision was the Jordans’ a-ha moment with a Beaulieu Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, which inspired them to become vintners. Beaulieu Vineyard’s Georges de Latour Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon from Rutherford in Napa Valley—aged in American oak at the time—changed the Jordans’ minds about the potential for quality cabernet sauvignon in California in the late 1960s. French-born owner Georges de Latour used French oak barrels when he began the reserve program in 1936. It became an iconic wine, sought by collectors and winemakers alike. When World War II stalled the importation of French barrels, he switched to American oak, and demand for the wine continued unabated.

In 1938, de Latour recruited Russian-born enologist André Tchelistcheff to make the BV Cabernets, aged largely in American oak. It was Tchelistcheff who recommended Rob Davis for the Jordan winemaking job and who mentored Davis until André’s death in 1994, at age 92.

“André shaped Tom Jordan’s perception of American oak,” Davis recalled. “Otherwise, we probably would have used all French because Tom loved Lafite, but Tom also loved the BV Private Reserves from 1938 through 1972.”

The decision was right for the times. Ridge Vineyards in the Santa Cruz Mountains found great success aging its cabernets in American oak. As Ridge winemaker Paul Draper said, “When we started making wine in 1969, we were California chauvinists. We didn’t want to make a California Burgundy or California Bordeaux. We liked the wines we made with American oak.” It was the same at Jordan in the early days.

“You have to remember that in 1974, there were about 300 wineries in California and now there are nearly 5,000,” Davis explained. “Everything was market-driven back then, with 80 percent of wine sales in white wines. Cabernet sauvignon was a minor player.”

So while Tom Jordan was ahead of the curve in focusing on red Bordeaux varieties in Alexander Valley, Tchelistcheff told Davis: “If you want to make better cabernet, you need better terroir.”

There are special sites in Alexander Valley with the terroir of which Tchelistcheff spoke: vineyards with ideal soils, exposures, row orientations, drainage, rootstocks and clones. Jordan’s valley floor vineyard, purchased in 1972, was not one of them. Tom Jordan had little science or data at hand when he established the estate in the early 1970s. In the years after, science-based viticultural knowledge has increased tenfold, with wine grapes now planted under precise conditions.

Letting the Fruit Lead

Jordan has kept pace with this viticultural evolution, selling the original valley floor property and replanting Jordan Estate blocks to get the most out of the site. Yet cabernet sauvignon complexity really took off when John Jordan took over ownership. John listened to Davis’ reasons for purchasing grapes from Alexander Valley benchlands and hillsides as supplements to the Jordan Estate fruit. Jordan understood that wine depth and nuance could be enhanced with the inclusion of non-estate grapes.

After a decade of research, trials and refinement of fruit sources, the 2015 Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon displays a new level of balance and refinement. The silky, black fruits in the 2015 Jordan are elevated and framed by the French oak tannins. Because 2015 was a cooler vintage that lent itself to Bordeaux-style wines, the transition to all French oak seemed even more natural.

Davis pointed out that even though he relied on American oak in the early years, over time, the ratio for Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon aging became 60-40 in favor of French (2011); 86 percent tonnellerie française in 2013 and 94 percent French in 2014 before the move to 100 percent French in 2015.

“As our fruit intensity increased, we relied on more French oak,” Davis explained. “We needed more of the silky French oak tannins to merge with the ripe tannins in the grapes. André always told me to look at soil for great grapes. For him it was site, site, site. Terroir is number one. He also taught me to look at the fruit profile versus the tannin profile. They need to be in balance with each other. Balanced wines age better, and uniformity breeds balance.”

Vincent Nadalié, president and director of sales for the cooperage firm Nadalié USA, based in Calistoga, has had a long relationship with Jordan, working with Davis to match barrels to cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay for years. Nadalié has seen Jordan’s cabernet program evolve to the point where 100 percent French oak is the best match for the fruit.

“Because the grapes Jordan [now] gets are so refined in aromas, flavors and velvety tannins, in order to give a maximum exposure to that fruit, Jordan went to the finesse of the tight-grain Colbert barrel. The Colbert elevates that fruit, showcases the aromatic flavors like rose petal and violet, rounds the wine with elegant tannins, and gives a nice fresh, bright finish.”

Colbert refers to the Tronçais and Limousin forests that were planted by Jean-Baptiste Colbert, minister of Louis XIV, in the late 1600s. They remain a gold standard.

“American oak is well-appreciated for cabernet sauvignon grapes, but brings roughness and lactone to the wine,” Nadalié continued. “The 100 percent French oak adds finesse and brightness to the wine, and those are the main characters of Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon.”

“American oak did its job through the years, adding its characteristic aroma and flavor support to the grapes.”

Rob Davis, Winemaker

The Tronçais forest in central France is a favorite barrel source of the Jordan winemaking team, based on blind tastings of Jordan wines aged in barrels from several forests. Tightness of grain, age of the trees, length of the seasoning period, levels of toasting during barrel production, and whether the oak barrel is being used for the first, second or third time, are all factors in Jordan barrel selection.

“American oak did its job through the years, adding its characteristic aroma and flavor support to the grapes,” Davis said. “Now, our fruit has the tannin structure to mature in all French oak barrels. If we’d continued with our old barrel regime, our cabernet would taste less refined and out of balance.”

Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon will always be based on elegance, finesse and moderate alcohol levels. The move to 100 percent French oak barrel aging is yet one more step in the winery’s efforts to remain at the top of the class amongst California’s First Growths.