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How the barrel affects wine flavor

Posted: April 27, 2012 6:00 a.m.
Updated: April 27, 2012 6:00 a.m.
Lil Lepore and Shari Frazier Lil Lepore and Shari Frazier
Lil Lepore and Shari Frazier

As the canvas is to the artist, the barrel is to the winemaker. As the grapes are to the winemaker, the wood is to the barrel maker.

Centuries ago during the Greek and Roman eras, wines were commonly stored in fragile clay vessels. As trade and transportation developed, merchants discovered sealed wooden containers were a better way to hold and transport wine, which led to the birth of cooperage also known as barrel making.

The specialized art of barrel making is an integral part in the winemaking process. The cooper or barrel maker is a highly skilled craftsman who hones his craft in the same manner and with the same type of tools used for centuries. Making wine barrels is just as much of a science as it is an art.

Oak has historically been used in the production of wine barrels and is most favored by winemakers. To improve the quality of the wine, barrel aging in oak provides flavor, aromatics, texture and complexity to the wine. As the wine rests in the barrel, chemical changes occur that soften the harsh grape tannins. Because of the nature of the wood, oak releases a chemical compound like tannin (not to be confused with grape tannins) that imparts flavors and aromas of vanilla, tobacco, coconut, sweet wood, toast, nut, caramel and smoke.

Just like grapes come from different regions, so does oak. The United States, Hungary and Russia harvest oak trees, but the most prestigious areas are from forests in France that are hundreds of years old.

Winemakers decide whether to use French oak or American oak when aging wine. French oak, preferred by most winemakers, is a tighter grain with higher wood tannins. It has less influence on the wine's aromatics but is known to increase the complexity of the wine. American oak has a wider grain with lower wood tannins. These barrels impart sweeter flavors and vanilla nuances. Winemakers typically choose American oak for bold, powerful reds or warm climate Chardonnay.

The cooper's barrel shape is one of the factors that play a role in the flavor development of the wine. The smaller the barrel, the more oak flavors will be in the wine. There are several types of barrels but the most commonly used are smaller types such as the Burgundian and Bordeaux. Although both of these barrels hold approximately 60 gallons of wine, the shape and size of each is slightly different. The Burgundian is slightly rounder and shorter, making it easier to roll and fit through doorways. Typically, Burgundian barrels are used for Pinot Noir and Burgundy, and the Bordeaux barrel is used for Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Bordeaux. Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc are also aged in these barrels at the discretion of the winemaker.

Another influential factor in imparting flavor in the wine is the amount of "toast" each barrel has. Once the barrel is constructed, the cooper heats or toasts the inside per the winemaker's specifications. Barrel toasting can be light, medium or heavy. Light toast results in retaining some of the oak's characteristics in the wine, while heavy toasting or charring gives the wine oaky and smoky nuances.

Next time you're tasting wine, try to identify oak in the flavor. The best way to understand the influences of oak is to do a tasting experiment with Chardonnay. Try an "oaked" and "un-oaked" Chardonnay side by side. Ask your wine merchant for some guidance, if the label doesn't indicate this. Once you've tasted both you should be able to identify that the "oaked" wine has more toasty, buttery notes, while the "un-oaked" is crisper, bringing out the wine's dominant flavors. Cheers!


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