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OAK BARRELS – WHAT’S ALL THE FUSS ABOUT?

OAK BARRELS – WHAT’S ALL THE FUSS ABOUT?
By James Cluer MW

You simply couldn’t make many of the world’s greatest wines without oak barrels. It’s as simple as that. Take the barrel out of Chateau Lafite and, well, it wouldn’t be selling for a few thousand bucks a bottle anymore.

Oak does much more to a wine than just add nuances of vanilla, spice, and toasty notes. Perhaps most importantly, barrels act as the lungs of a wine, allowing it to slowly breathe through the microscopic pores. This can result in a tiny amount of oxidation, which can help fill out the wine, giving it more depth, breadth and complexity. But that’s not all it does. Barrels can potentially add wood tannins to the wine, giving it more structure, changing the texture, and possibly allowing it to age for longer. Barrel aging can also change the color of wine, usually making white wines deeper.

As such, winemakers go gaga over oak barrels. Their barrel cellar is their pride and joy. They love leaning against a barrel, wine thief in hand, explaining their preference for one toasting level over another, or perhaps a certain forest, or their adoration for a certain cooperage. At around $1,200 for a top French oak barrel these are expensive toys and the barrel bill is likely to be the largest capital expense each year after labor costs.

The marriage of wine and wood is a complex subject. First, you have a variety of different types of wood that either are, or have been, used on wine. Pine, and certainly pine resin, imparts a rather distinctive taste, best left to lovers of Retsina. Other types of wood, such as chestnut, are occasionally used, but sometimes impart harsh flavors into the wine. So the coopers have settled on oak as the best type of wood amongst all the options.

There are, of course, different species of oak tree. The species that is most commonly used from America is called quercus alba, which comes from around Missouri. Some winemakers describe it as having overt coconut flavors, and being too loud, obnoxious and in-your –face. But frankly, I’ve had some extremely delicious wines made out of American oak. Old style Rioja is typically aged in American oak, and that’s hardly obnoxious wine.

On the cost front, you have the benefit of American oak costing half as much as French oak because more can be extracted from the tree. The trees are typically 80-120 years old before being harvested, so there’s some planning ahead involved.

The French oak species, known as quercus robur, is the species that is the most highly prized. But even within France there are different forests, and each forest has its own terroir, and so the trees grow differently. Therefore, the wood not only tastes different from one forest to another, but the size of the pores can vary, changing the degree of oxygenation. Most winemakers say that French oak is more subtle, with more spice and nutty flavors.

Once a tree is harvested it is taken to the cooperage and cut into staves, which look like planks. Some coopers then put these in stacks and leave them outside to be seasoned. As the planks of wood are exposed to the elements the undesirable tannins seep out, and after three years only the finest flavors and tannins remain. Other coopers think this is a waste of time, and they kiln dry the wood, so it is ready in a matter of weeks after the harvest. But the cognoscenti frown on this. You can’t hurry perfection.
Once the staves have been seasoned they are put into the hands of the barrel maker, who will toast the wood over an open fire to char it. The more it is “smoked” the stronger the toasty flavors in the wine. This is an art. Some barrels may need a light toasting, whereas others may need longer, and of course there’s always the option of toasting the heads of the barrel too. Other cooperages leave the decision to technology, and have an electronic nose sniff around in there to determine if certain aromatic compounds are present. As a winery, you can order your barrels with an extra dose of vanilla if you so wish…

The barrels are then shipped off around the world, ready for the Cabernet, Merlot, Syrah, Malbec, Pinot Noir, and various other red varietals that commonly go into them. A handful of whites like Chardonnay are often aged in barrel too, and sometimes Sauvignon Blanc can be fermented and aged in barrel, like in California or Bordeaux.

It then falls into the hands of the winemaker as to how he might use his precious toys. Most are nervous about over-oaking a wine and it’s a fine line to tread between getting the most out of a barrel and not over-doing it. As such, many winemakers don’t use 100% new oak, and instead use both one and two year old barrels. But on the other hand, there are wineries that produce such dense wines that 100% new oak treatment is the way to go, and some cult wines even go for 200% new oak by using a new set of barrels half way through the ageing process. The bottom line is that there is no magic formula and every winemaker will have his own preferences.

But when it comes to modern wine-drinkers tastes, we’ve been told that we shouldn’t like oaky wines anymore. All those vanilla and toasty notes, accompanied by a dose of melted butter, is no longer in style. But just wait 10 years, and it’ll be all the rage again.

To learn more about the wonderful world of wine take a course at www.FineVintageLtd.com It’s time and money well spent.