VESSELS: Wood is Good
Walk into almost any wine-tasting room on the planet and they will be there: wine barrels. They may be stacked over there by a wall or set on their tails with a piece of glass across the top making for a tasting table. They might serve as stands for bottle displays or perhaps have books stacked on top of them.
But they are always there.
And 99 percent of the time they are strictly decoration, a device used to convey the idea of the romance of wine resting in wait until it is finally time to bottle and drink. The real barrels, the ones that do the work, are usually stored in temperature-controlled cellars or caves stacked high and filled with wines of different vintages.
But the point of the display barrels is to emphasize that they are critical components of winemaking. They are the tools used by winemakers to tweak and adjust a given wine, much as a chef utilizes a variety of spices in cooking.
Just about all red wines, and many whites, are treated with oak. The majority of fine wines are aged in either French, American (and occasionally Hungarian or Slavonian) oak barrels while some less expensive wines are treated with wooden chips. The effects of oak impacts the color, the flavor and the feel of a wine — basically the entire package. Used with a deft and gentle hand, an oak regime will work with a wine to soften tannins, making it rounder and more palatable, give it hints of vanilla or cocoa or tobacco to enhance its flavors and aromas, and deepen the shades and hues to intensify its beauty in the glass.
There are over 600 known varieties of Quercus, the latin name for oak, on the planet, but just a few are used for aging wine. White oak, with its tighter grain, is the oak of choice.
In France, there are a half-dozen forests, spread mostly across the mid-section of the country that spawn the majority of oak trees used in the barrel industry. Only two types of oak trees, the Quercus robur, or English oak, and the Quercus petraea, the Sessile oak, are deemed appropriate for wines. The forests of these two types of trees are heavily regulated and managed by the French government and they are not felled until they have reached widths of 24 to 36 inches and are a century old or more. Even then, only about a quarter of the tree is used for barrels with the rest going for wood veneers and other products. It is no wonder the cost of these barrels exceeds $1,000 each, ranging to more than $4,000 for specialty selections.
American oak wine barrels are the product of American White Oak trees, or Quercus alba, which grow across the midwest and eastern states, but seem to have a stronghold in Missouri. In addition to being less expensive than French oak barrels, the American varieties impart different flavor characteristics. Not better or worse —just different. Wines aged in American oak (including Silver Oak and Ridge from California, Australia’s Grange, and many Spanish wines, especially from Rioja) may benefit from stronger, more forward flavors and a creamier mouth feel, while wines aged in French Oak may draw subtler components from the wood. That is simply a generalization but it does provide a rule of thumb.
The practice of aging wine in barrels made of oak, like most things in wine, has origins dating back a couple of thousand years to the Romans. As the Roman armies plundered northward on conquests into what is now Europe, they required vessels to transport wines for their thirsty soldiers. Originally they used clay bottles called amphorae, but they were heavy and cumbersome. Something had to be done. Enter the Gauls, beer drinkers who had learned that by producing barrels from oak trees and wrapping the wooden staves with steel, they could both keep beer fresh and transport it easily. Knowing a good idea when they saw it, the Romans stole it and had well-lubricated forces for the rest of their reign.
As the Romans learned, storage in barrels not only eases the process of moving wines, but also adds an arrow to the quiver of a winemaker. By using oak from different forests, with different densities, treated in different ways, a winemaker can alter or preserve the original flavors of the wines. Using techniques like “toasting” a barrel (firing it to give it a smoky texture), rotating wines from new (unused) and old (used) barrels, or simply changing the time spent in the barrels can have a huge impact on the final product.
So the next time that you are standing in a winery, glass in hand, be sure to ask about the wood. There is a veritable forest of information.
Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass. He can be reached at email@example.com.