WineInk: On trees and wine
“I like the oaky flavors in this cab” or “This chardonnay is too woody for my taste.” These two notes and similar quips are not uncommon to hear in conversations about drinking wine.
The first may be a compliment from someone who has taken a shine to the vanilla or smoky flavors often found in a cabernet sauvignon that has undergone a regime of aging in an oak barrel before its release. The latter, perhaps, comes from a purist who prefers a more unadulterated wine, say a chardonnay that eschewed the use of wood aging and spent its youth in stainless steel or even a concrete egg to maintain the flavor profile of the fruit.
Neither is wrong in their taste preferences.
After all, to each his or her own. But the use of oak, or the lack thereof, in winemaking is one of the essentials that make wine so unique.
Oak has been a key part of wine since around the time when BC became AD. The Romans, stealing an idea from the Gauls (basically first millennium French) who themselves appropriated it from the Celts, began to use wood staved barrels wrapped with steel hoops to transport wine from their far-flung empire to Rome. The Gauls had used oak barrels to store and ship beer, but the concept was solid for shipping wine, as well. A relatively lightweight storage solution that both preserved and protected the beverage while providing a shippable container.
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A couple millennia later, oak barrels are used as a winemaker’s tool not for transportation, but for augmenting the flavors and the feel of a wine. Most premium reds, and many white wines, spend anywhere from a few months to several years aging in barrels to provide tannins, texture and a whole host of different flavor components to the grape juice in the barrels.
Today the most popular wood for oak wine barrels comes from trees grown in forests in Europe, or French oak, and trees that originate in Missouri and produce, appropriately, American oak. French oak, in a very general sense, is used to provide a subtler, spicy influence, whereas the American oak, as would be culturally expected, is more out front, infusing wines with a bit more vanilla, cola and, some say, tropical pineapple-like features.
But the relationship between wine and wood is as complex and confounding as it can be between people. The decisions that winemakers need to consider begin with whether to use French or American oak, or a combination of both, at different stages of a wine’s development. In what may seem contrary, the best Napa cabernets find their moment after resting in French oak barrels. While in Rioja, Spain, the finest tempranillo wines have found their apex from aging in American oak barrels. Go figure.
And there are wines that spend time within the confines of both. One batch, lot, or percentage of a wine may be stored in French oak and another placed in American oak barrels. The combination of the different influences is part of the art of the winemaker.
Then there is the choice of new or old barrels. New ones, fresh from a cooperage, may impart predictable strong flavors, whereas used barrels (generally you cannot use a barrel for more than three vintages) may be more mellow in their influence. Again, many bottles of wine may have spent time in both, depending upon the plan for the final wine.
Either way, wineries work with cooperages to not only hand-select the wood for the barrels they use for a particular wine, but also to determine the level of “toast” they are looking for. Most barrels are smoked, or burned, to some degree so that they will enhance the smoky flavors that are transferred to the wine. The wood itself will be fired to the toast requested by the winemaker — another individual decision.
And of course, there is the question of economics. New wine barrels range in price from $500 to $1,250 per unit. A standard 60-gallon barrel can produce 300 bottles of wine. Do the math and you can see that the cost of a barrel can add anywhere from $2 to $4 per bottle. That is a much more significant figure to a value wine than it is for a premium bottle. And more often than you may consider, wineries are using oak alternatives such as wood chips to provide the properties of oak to wine.
Getting your head, and your palate, around what is in your glass may require some focus. You can find a forest — and some trees in your wine — if you just pay attention.
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Mark Oldman returns to the 2021 Food & Wine Classic in Aspen with plans for over-the-top seminar presentations this year. “The return of the Classic is so incredibly joyous, it deserves something great, something really special,” Oldman said.