Thursday, April 8, 2010

Got Wood?

Are oak barrels becoming obsolete? You may be wondering, given some new trends in the wine-making world. An example is the new, and growing cost-effective measure of aging wine in stainless steel tanks and adding oak chips to the mix. Look, traditions can and do change, but I will say this now for all of my tree hugging friends. I’m sorry but, wine barrels are not going anywhere.  What I’m talking about is oak in wine and what a great marriage it is. It can be a great partnership that can span time and coexist in a harmonious state. Ever cook a special dish only to taste it and say oh it needs this or oh it needs that? In wine, oak can be seen as this missing piece to the puzzle. It’s like a spice that can make that special dish, well....special.

What makes it so special? For one, oak barrels can offer up the necessary tannin, flavor, structure, and complexity that all serious wine drinkers desire. Oak can impart a wide variety of flavors based on the quality, the type, the toast level, or the age of the barrel. There are different types of wine barrels with different grains (American, French, Hungarian,Solvenian). Some wines see oak for short periods of time and higher-end wines much longer. For example: in Napa, Shafer Hillside Select is aged in oak for 32 months; Nebbiolo grapes may spend four or more years in oak; those Barolos need some age before they drink well; and high-end Rioja producers will sometimes age their wines up to ten years in American oak to get a desired earthy, vanilla character. Now there are some who do not like the oak in their wine, but if you plan, want, or desire to taste some of the finest red wines in the world, there will be oak in them. As for whites, well that can be a different story.

So how does a winery choose what type of barrel to age their wine in? It’s a difficult decision that can come down to finances, type of grape, tannin levels, or flavor preferences. The two most popular are French oak and American oak. If it is a financial decision, then American oak wins every time. Typically, American oak barrels cost about half as much as French, $400 - $500 vs. $1000.  If you desire a wine that can age, then French oak barrels with a tight wood grain profile is your best bet. Now, if you desire to make a tasty wine at a reasonable price then new American oak may be a good choice. In the United States, white oak, grown in Virginia, Missouri, Kentucky, and Ohio, is the species used for barrels.  French sessile oak is harvested from several different forests in France. The most common forests are Limousin, Alliers, Vosges, Troncais and Nevers, each producing oak which imparts slightly different nuances of flavor and aroma to the wine. Since each forest may impart different nuances to the wine, some wine makers choose barrels that are a blend of more than one to impart additional complexity.

Aging wine in wooden barrels allows for oxygen and wood to react with the wine causing the wine to gain additional flavors and characteristics. Distinctly different flavor profiles are imparted by French and American oak.  For example, American oak contains more vanillin (vanilla aroma) while French oak contains more flavor components and complexity with, less oaked or oaky odor, that can be found in American barrels. American barrels can offer a wine a toasty, sweeter characteristic. Eric Baugher, winemaker at Ridge Monte Bello expressed his perspective on American oak, "Poorly sourced wood, short drying time, and incorrect fire pot temperatures can make an American oak barrel taste planky, crude, and strong in dill and coconut shavings. The reason our American oak barrels perform so well, is that we take the time to work hand-in-hand with the coopers to specify forest, seasoning time, selection of fine grain, and toast level. We also carefully balance percentages of new oak and older cooperage, and match to the wine’s concentration." French barrels can offer up more tannin structure impart to it containing 10 times the concentration of ellagotannin compared to American specie. Use of new barrels contribute to additional flavor and complexity for the wine. As the barrels age, this capability is dimiinished. Toasting of the barrels is done slowly and deliberately over a low flame which lends itself to a deeper penetration and caramelization of the wood sugars. Some winemakers may choose between a heavy, medium, or light toast. Or if the winemaker chooses to bypass toasting then the choice is neutral oak. Toasting the barrels can tame some of the coconut flavor you find in American oak while imparting some of those fun flavors of caramel, mocha and toffee.  I used to joke about the McManis Petite Sirah. I swore that they actually lite the barrels on fire while the wine is still in them!!!  Truth is McManis actually uses the newer, cost-effective stainless steel tanks mixed with oak chips.

Personally, my perference leans towards the use of new french oak. In good vintages a characteristic I find in the top wines is the possession of velvety, silky structure that glides across the palate, yum! I think that sums it up. As for me, when it comes to aging wine, I’m not afraid to say ‘got wood?'

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