Kelly J. Hayes: WineInk |

Kelly J. Hayes: WineInk

So you have guests for dinner and they bring along a bottle of Malbec from Argentina. Say a 2008 Ben Marco from Mendoza.

You open it up, pour a glass and put your nose in it. You get the unmistakable scent of vanilla, nothing overwhelming, mind you, but just enough of an aroma to make you want to dive in. You taste the wine and it is delicious. And as you swallow it you feel a little pucker, a little dryness inside your mouth.

That, my friends, is what oak does to wine.

How a winemaker chooses to use oak is one of the most important decisions he/she will make when it comes to making a particular wine in a particular style. In fact, other than the grape variety, how a wine is aged (or not aged) in oak can be the most significant factor in how a wine tastes.

While there has been a move to make white wines in steel containers in the last few years (see un-oaked Chardonnay for example), just about every red wine and many whites see time in oak barrels. Some, particularly Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, are actually barrel-fermented, which means they sit in oak as the yeast changes the sugars to alcohol. Other bigger red wines, like Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz, will be aged for anywhere from one to three years, or even longer, in oak.

Aging wine in wood is an ancient tradition. While other woods such as redwood and even palm wood were used centuries ago to hold wine, it was the Romans who began to see the benefits of using oak barrels to store their vino. Oak, while providing a water-tight seal, is porous enough to allow some exchange with oxygen, encouraging the evaporation of water and alcohol within a barrel. Oak also has the advantage of being a tightly grained wood, so that it emits flavors gradually without overwhelming the color or flavor of the juice.

Coopers in France perfected the use of white oak to make barrels for vintners in the 1800s. There are five key forests (Limousin Alliers, Vosges, Troncais and Nevers) in central France that produce much of the most valued wood used for French barrels. These forests were originally planted during Napoleon’s reign to build ships. But today, under government control, they thrive as a resource for the global wine trade.

Each of the forests imparts different flavor profiles to the wines fermented or stored in them. For example, oak from the Limousin region has a looser grain in the wood than that of the Vosges, and is said to provide a more aggressive component for winemakers.

And there is the way that a cooper actually makes the barrels. How long the wood is left to air-dry before the cooper starts to work his magic can change a barrel’s profile. And then there is the art of toasting, where a cooper smokes the inside of the barrel with an open flame, bringing forth tannins and flavors, such as butterscotch and smoke, which will be released in a wine that sits in a barrel.

French oak barrels are very expensive, ranging from $700 to as much as $1000, depending on the provenance of the wood. A Bordeaux barrels holds 59 gallons of wine while Burgundy barrels, which have a slightly different shape, are a little larger, holding 60 gallons, big enough to produce 25 cases, or 300 bottles of wine. A barrel will typically last for five years before losing all of its flavor components and becoming essentially a neutral storage vessel.

Barrels are also produced in Hungary, but the other major source of wine barrels is the United States. American oak barrels are often made from wood grown in forests in Missouri. Many winemakers around the world, especially Australians, who make Shiraz and other big red wines, prefer the flavors that the American wood gives their wines. American oak is said to provide a little tougher mouth feel to a red wine. And that vanilla aroma tends to be more pronounced in wines aged in American oak as well. One advantage for winemakers using American wood is the cost; American oak barrels sell for less than half the price of their French cousins.

And that 2008 Ben Marco Malbec from Mendoza? According to a note on the bottle written by Pedro Marchevsky, who made the wine, it was aged equally in “new French and second year American oak barrels for 11 months.”

You’ve got to love an equal opportunity winemaker.

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