Wine-making's hottest trend is to age it in oak barrels
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Although small wooden barrels have been used for centuries as containers for storing and transporting wine and other commodities, using new oak barrels as part of the winemaker's tool box is a more recent development. Even scientists are not sure why, but it is clear that aging wine in small, new, oak barrels produces positive results.Tony Tye, Post-Gazette
At Keystone Cooperage, in Morgan, Greene County, co-owner Mike Wilson operates the crozer, which makes grooves in the top and bottom of the cask that barrel headings fit into. The firm makes oak barrels for wineries.
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Historically, many types of wood were used for making barrels, but winemakers eventually found that only oak barrels imparted flavor to the wines stored in them. The wines take on some of the compounds in the barrel, such as vanillin and wood tannins. The additional oak tannins that seep into the wine add body and complexity.
Today, the art of choosing the type of oak, the size of the barrel and the amount of toasting the barrel receives is an integral part of the winemaking art. As well as adding aromas, barrel-aging allows slow oxidation, which matures the wine and helps the various components meld together, giving it more structure and harmony.
"Toasting" is one step in the manufacture of a wine barrel. The partially assembled barrel is placed over a small wood fire and the inside of the barrel is charred. The winemaker decides whether he wants a barrel with light, medium or heavy toasting. This decision depends primarily on the grape variety used in the wine and on the style of wine the winemaker wishes to produce. I like to think of toasting as adding seasoning, just as a chef does when creating a recipe.
New wood imparts more flavor to the wine, so that for the most expensive wine, new barrels are used once or twice and then passed down to a lesser wine for use for a few more years. After five years, the wood no longer has any flavor to give the wine.
Fifty-nine-gallon barrels are standard for most wines. If made of French oak, the barrel will cost almost $600. A barrel made of American oak costs half that.
The flavors imparted by the barrels are different for several reasons. First, the species of oak is different, and second, the barrel production methods are not the same.
American oak has a wider grain, and this gives the wine more pronounced oak aromas. In addition to the creamy texture and flavors of vanilla and dill, this oak adds some coarse tannins to the wine. French oak has a tighter grain and thinner staves, which result in smoother tannins and more subtle oak influences on the wine.
For wines that have been aged in these barrels, the back label normally will refer to that fact with a line such as "18 months maturation in American oak barrels."
There are less expensive ways to get some oakiness into wine. The most common is to add a sackful of oak chips or shavings to a stainless steel fermentation tank. This procedure is illegal in Europe but is commonly used in New World wines. The labels of these wines will refer to "oak influence," "oak aging" or "oak maturation" without any mention of the word "barrel."
The flavors that oak imparts to wine have become so fashionable that it's a challenge today to find a wine that is totally oak-free. If you want to experience oak-free wines, there are a few European wines that are most typically unoaked. They are beaujolais and beaujolais-villages, inexpensive montepulciano, dolcetto, pinot grigio, German QbA wines and Cotes du Rhone.
In order to recognize the qualities that oak brings to wine, I am listing some wines that have spent long periods in oak barrels as well as some that have spent a short time in oak, in the hope that you will want to make some taste comparisons. Look for aromas of vanilla that are common in barrel-aged wine.
Fat Bastard Shiraz 2004, PLCB #06178, $10.99.
This wine is made from grapes grown in the Languedoc region of France. A portion of the vintage has spent four months in French and American oak barrels and then been mixed in a tank with the part that never went into barrels. This results in the wine showing more of the varietal qualities of the shiraz grape with less oak characteristic. The advantage of putting some of the wine in barrels is that it helps all the flavors blend and become more complex.
Rosemount Estate Traditional Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Petit Verdot 2003, PLCB #27479, $8.99 (Chairman's Selection).
This classic Bordeaux blend of grapes grown in South Australia has spent 18 months in oak barrels, 80 percent American and 20 percent French. Almost half the barrels were new, and slightly more than half were one or two years old. The wine exhibits lots of ripe blackberry fruit, with notes of chocolate and coffee. The oak has added some spice and toast aromas and helped to make the finish long and complex.
Richard Hamilton Burton's Vineyard McLaren Vale 2002, PLCB #27644, $19.99 (Chairman's Selection).
This blend of 54 percent grenache and 46 percent shiraz grapes from old vines in South Australia was fermented in a combination of old and new American and French oak barrels. Barrel fermentation adds another dimension to the oak characteristics in the wine. This wine is big and chewy, full of cassis and black currant aromas with notes of vanilla and cedar chiming in. Although noted wine expert Robert Parker has deemed it a wine that will drink well for a decade, it's perfectly suitable for drinking now.
White wines too, can be exposed to oak. The finest burgundy whites are always aged in French oak barrels, and the best are usually also fermented in barrels. This imparts color as well as flavor to the wines. Most New World chardonnays have also passed some of their development in new oak barrels.
Joseph Drouhin Beaune Clos des Mouches 2002, PLCB #21949, $67.99.
Although very expensive, this white Burgundy from the Cote d'Or in France provides a great illustration of what the chardonnay grape produces when grown in its native terroir. The wine was fermented and aged in French Limousin oak. It is creamy, rich and aromatic. The vanilla characteristic of the oak is plainly evident.
Domaine Touzot Macon-Villages 2005, PLCB #51190, $10.49 (available from Gateway Wines, 412-682-1099).
This chardonnay from the Macon region in Southern Burgundy is entirely oak-free and offers an opportunity to taste the grape variety without oak influence.Jon Dimis, Associated Press
A worker at the Vega Sicilia winery near Valbuena de Duero, Spain, walks past wine barrels, racked on stainless steel supports, in a huge wine cellar on the winery estate.
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First Published August 17, 2006 12:00 am