Have you ever wondered what function and/or purpose wood barrels contribute to the flavors in wine, or are all those rows and rows of barrels lining the cellar floor at the winery just for looks? What function, if any, does barrel aging serve?
Thousands of years of wine-making trial and error have led to oak becoming the standard wood for barrel aging. The two major types of oak used are American and French. American Oak is typically known for imparting flavors of toasted coconut, dill, and strong vanilla. French Oak is known for imparting subtle tones of vanilla, baking spices, cinnamon and clove. Dependent upon the grape, and the decision of the winemaker as to what type of an oak influence they are looking to create, will thus determine the choice of barrel.
Another option for winemakers is the “toast” of the barrel. This is imparted during the construction of the barrel by the ‘Cooper’ (the builder of the barrel). In order to bend the oak planks into the curved staves for the barrel, Coopers must heat the planks. During this heating process, the Cooper can control the “toast” levels of the barrel to typically either light, medium, or dark. Beyond getting too scientific (toasting breaks down the molecular structure of oak, pyrolyzing the lignans etc…), the following are the basic flavor profiles of the applied toast levels:
Light Toast: Provides a slight color change to the wood providing scents of vanilla, caramel and clove.
Medium Toast: Provides a brown toned wood, and imparts scents of cedar, roasted nuts, vanilla and coffee.
Heavy Toast: Provides a dark toned wood, and imparts aromas of coffee bean, charcoal, ginger, nutmeg and toasted bread.
Therefore, the type of grape, the ‘toast’ of the barrel, and the length of aging in the barrel will dictate the flavor intensity/ profile. Wines aged for longer periods of time in oak barrels will develop more intense oak flavor profiles than wines aged in oak for shorter periods. Barrels that have been used beyond 2-3 years are then considered “neutral”, and will therefore impart no “toast”. Winemakers choose to use neutral barrels when looking to soften flavors, however not impart any element of an “oaky” influence.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jyll Jara, WSET II
For the last nine-plus years, I have been pursuing my passion/obsession for wine. Starting in Southern CA, I learned the basics of regions, varietals, and tasting techniques while serving as Marketing & Sales Manager for Winestyles locations. Following my pursuit for higher wine education, I relocated to the Bay Area in 2010 where I worked in various glamorous capacities including “slinging wine” behind the bar, and “warehouse rat” in Sonoma. I worked and studied my way to Director of Wine Events, coordinating events and tastings with local Napa and Sonoma wineries. I last served as Director of Wine managing a 48 wine by the glass tasting menu, in addition to cultivating an international bottle program. I am proudly WSET Level II Certified, and am currently continuing my pursuit of higher wine education.
"I drink when I have occasion, and sometimes when I have no occasion.”
-MIGUEL DE CERVANTES