People either love or hate Del Dotto in Napa Valley (I think one could fairly say that I fit into both categories – I both love and hate it). On one hand, their tasting room has over the top Roman-style art and architecture that screams “I don’t know how to spend my money”. Their barrel tasting tour is in a cave system that seems built more to showcase the cave than provide storage. And their tour guides / poures can be a bit pretentious (as well as not always the best educated) and spout such phrases as “during sorting, other wineries pull out their worst grapes – while we sort the other way, we only pulling the best grapes to go in our wine.” – insert eye-roll. On the other hand, any tasting that almost exclusively comes from barrels is automatically great in my book. Del Dotto focuses on cabernets and has many different ones on their list, which my husband loves. And, they are extremely generous with the number of wines to sample (more on that lower down). But the best thing about Del Dotto is the education your palette receives on oak. They let you try the same exact wine aged both in French and American Oak (just hope you remember what you learned after their generous number of wines to sample).
What possible difference could the type of oak a wine is aged in make?
The answer is a tremendous one. Think of the difference between barbequing the same cut of meat over charcoal versus over wood. Personally, I think the best way to figure out your oak preference is to go to one of the few wineries with a tasting of the exact same wine aged in different types of oak – like Del Dotto. This only works if the winery uses the exact same wine in different barrels. Differing varietals (i.e., grapes), differing vintages (i.e., years), or differing terroir (i.e., the plot of land on which the grapes are grown) can all impact the taste of the wine and which style of oak you prefer.
Of course, there are incredible differences not only between American and French Oak, but also within French Oak and American Oak (a.k.a. the species, age, level of toasting). Going back to the barbeque analogy, a cut of meat will taste different if barbequed over hickory wood as opposed to alder wood. If you ever stick your nose into a barrel before the winery pours the wine into it – you can immediately pick up the radical differences between each different type of oak even coming from the same country. But alas, we have yet to find a winery that lets you taste the same exact wine aged in different types of French Oak or different types of American Oak. If you know of one, please let me know.
Back to Del Dotto
The first time I went there, it was right after an amazing once-a-year barrel tasting at Ty Caton in Sonoma Valley (mini plug for Ty Caton – check them out, their wines are awesome!). With my husband as the designated driver (thanks honey), I was already a little happy heading across county lines to Del Dotto. My husband and I arrived for the tour, tasted the same wines aged in different oak, and discussed our thoughts at length during the tasting. Del Dotto’s extensive pours proceeded to take me from happy to really happy. Indeed, another winery in Napa said of Del Dotto, (and take this with a grain of salt as it’s coming from a competitor), that every winery has a differing sales strategy, and Del Dotto’s is to get people drunk. Admittedly, by the time I left Del Dotto, I was “happy” enough that I had forgotten my thoughts and preferences. (Fortunately, my husband who was driving and mostly spitting, took copious mental notes).
French Oak. It strikes me as making a mellower, less angry at a young age, and richer wine. That said, what matters is not what I prefer, but what you prefer. So, my suggestion, if you haven’t already, is to go to Del Dotto or a tasting like it, and get a blind comparison between the various oaks. You don’t have to like French Oak because Robert Parker does. Figure out what you like best.