Once again, it’s time for you to be swept into the spiritual vortex of wine, where the truths and untruths of the precious liquid we all so love are homogenized by what you read right here in this shtick.
This episode’s confusing blither ratifies the genius of Mensa International denying me membership as I attempt to write, in 900 words, not “Wood for Dummies” but rather, “Wood by a Dummy”. My IQ is the same as your garage temperature in January….
Wood. Who doesn’t appreciate properly placed wood? Sometimes remnants of oak storage in a new barrel produce penetrating and dominating oaky flavors. Sometimes wood tones integrate with the fruit, producing concentrated richness and finesse. And sometimes all that shows up is the remnants of being in a barrel, without woody flavors present. So, we have oaky, woody and barrel.
The wood barrel is a work of genius. Can you imagine how smart and talented the first cooper was to make a leak-free wine barrel without laser-guided cutting tools, computer calipers, pneumatic stave benders and bottled beer? Dude, that was like 3,000 years ago!
History tells us that the trusty ceramic Amphora, used for a few thousand years before the barrel, fell out of favor due to breakage and weight, and probably overwhelming industrial insurance claims against the Roman Empire. Although it is logical that coopering wine-tight barrels was transferred shipbuilding technology, apparently the Romans lifted the craft from the Gauls, who probably ripped it off from someone else. Clay Amphora have hung around for millennia, however wood barrels decompose over time; I’ve found particularly rapid degradation when I use them as planters. Maybe that’s why you can’t find any Roman barrels. Anyway, pinpointing the date of the first wooden barrel is up to cave hieroglyphs and ceramic engravings. One of my winemaker pals on the Mosel River in Germany still uses barrels his family acquired in the 1600’s. So much for my degradation comment.
Over 400 varieties of oak trees inhabit the earth, some of which are exclusive to a specific forest. Due to variations of variety, venue and climate, each has it’s own idiosyncratic characteristics. One thing shared is, to make a decent barrel, trees need to be about a century old. There are different shapes, and sizes of barrels range from just a few liters to hundreds of gallons.
Generally speaking, American white oak imparts a slew of stronger flavor and aromatic components due to its density, a partial list of which include coconut, chocolate, tea, coffee, sweet vanilla and clove. These are what we love so much about new world wines. French oak is known to impart subtle complexities, like toasted almond, caramel and fruity flavors and aromas…silky smoothness. Eastern European oak is also favored by some due to resultant softer tannins. Most vintners mix it up to build layers of flavors.
Oak isn’t the exclusive wood storage medium; regal upright redwood tanks were the standard 50 years ago for neutral bulk storage until stainless steel came into vogue.
The first users of wooden barrels stumbled onto something big. First, the staves work as an airtight semipermeable membrane, allowing water and alcohol evaporation. This concentration in a barrel allows color, texture and flavor development. Counterintuitively, only a smidgeon of oxygen comes through the staves, so spoilage oxidation is denied. This, ladies and gentlemen, is the “barrel” component to wine aging, called “elevage” by our French friends, meaning, roughly, maturing.
The second cool thing is that newer barrels impart sinfully delicious flavors depending on which forest they came from, how the tree is cut and dried, how the staves are bent, how it was assembled and particularly the level of internal charring, called toast. This is the “oak” component of a barrel…flavor addition from the toasted wood. The variances are like a 3-dimensional game of chess.
So the barrel is not only a desirable container, it also imparts sexy ingredients to the wine. However, exposure of the wine to the inside of a barrel lessens the spice infusion over time, so after a few years, a barrel turns neutral and does not contribute oaky flavors.
And as with any flavor you want to add to your food, adding too much or the wrong element of spice can overwhelm the effort. Wine barrels can be the culprit in some cases, like when a winemaker places a subtle wine in a heavily charred barrel. Oaky Chardonnay is a prime example where all you get is oak. Some people like massively oaky Chard. Not me.
Winemakers can add oak, not barrel, by dumping oak adjuncts into neutral vessels to achieve the desired woody flavors… powder, shavings, chips, cubes, sticks and staves, all from your favorite forest, all toasted to order. This cheating can be authentically tasty and you would be surprised who uses this technique. So will the oak barrel go the way of the vinyl records, the Bee-Hive hairdo and the Amphora? I hope not. I need planters for spring.
The profound transformation of a grapy, sometimes bitter or chalky liquid into a softer, complex substance with seductive wood enhancements is the goal. Barrel time transforms astringent and rough flavors into harmonious richness, and the oak adds the wood. Barrel time takes a wine through the stages of adolescence and readies wine for bottling where it can further morph into an even more luscious treat.
Tah-tah…off to plant some herbs, after which I will knock back a woody, not oaky, wine, with friends, in moderation, frequently.
This story was originally published March 13, 2017 12:00 AM.