Oak Barrels: a Vintner’s Spice Rack

We’ve heard it many times: “All great wines begin in the vineyard.”

It’s impossible to debate that point because without grapes of good quality—meaning healthy and adequately ripened—a vintner is destined to make a wine that is little more than “acceptable” in quality. Or, to put it another way, don’t expect a wine made from inferior grapes to garner a big score from a wine critic.

That said, while having access to high-quality grapes is critical in the winemaking process, it’s only the first step in that process. Also contributing to the ultimate quality of the finished wine is the fermentation procedure utilized, and the wine’s aging regimen.

A vast majority of modern wines are aged in either stainless steel tanks or oak barrels.

Vintners who want the flavors imparted by the grapes to play a “starring role” often opt for stainless steel aging, because stainless steel is considered “neutral.” In other words, it adds nothing to the flavor of the wine.

Vintners looking to enhance and/or expand a wine’s aroma and flavor profile will opt for oak barrel aging. They believe that nuances beyond those of fruit create finished wines that are more complex, more interesting and more enjoyable.

The two most common types of oak used for wine aging are French and American, and each contributes unique aromas and flavors.

If you smell and/or taste such things as toast, smoke, vanilla, caramel or butterscotch in a wine, it likely was aged in French oak barrels.

If you note such things as coconut or dill, American oak barrels probably were used.

The degree of “toasting” that individual barrels receive also is important, as certain nuances may become more or less pronounced in the finished wine.

The use of oak barrels by a winemaker has been likened to the spice rack available to a chef. The choices made in the cellar—French oak, American oak, French and American oak, or no oak—are extremely important to the overall character of a finished wine.

Oak barrels play a big role in the making of wines at California’s Jordan wine estate. To view a fascinating video on the Old World art of making a wine barrel, courtesy of Jordan, click here.

Posted in In the Cellar
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