Apr 09 2009

The Barrel Effect

By Brooke Gowen

There are a million factors that go into the finished product that is wine. Some are beyond a producer’s control (such as bad weather, pests and insects, diseases, etc.), and others are completely controlled by the winemaker: grape harvesting times, the fermentation and ageing process, and myriad other vinification techniques. Today, let’s explore the extremely important and influential aspect of barreling: What kinds of barrels are used during the fermentation and maturation process and what effects do different barrels ultimately have on the style of the wine. This can be a very complex and complicated topic, so I shall make it as simple as I possibly can. 

Working in a wine store, when sales reps brings in new wines for us to try, one of the first things they say (after a short background on the producer, of course) is how long the wine “saw oak” or if it “was fermented in stainless steel” for some length of time. So, take a look below at the various types of barrels winemakers may choose and what effects they will have on the style of the wine:

  • Small New Oak Barrels: these give wines a lot of oak character to the wine because there is more surface area coming into contact with the juice (as well, the larger the barrel, the less contact and effect the oak barrel will have on the juice inside); new oak will impart more vanilla and smoky aromas and flavors to the wine, as well as wood tannins
  • Used Oak Barrels: these have previously held other wines; therefore, a good bit of the color, aroma, and flavor will have already been absorbed; after about five years, used oak barrels are almost completely neutral and won’t impart a lot of oaky characteristics
  • Neutral Vats/Tanks (Stainless Steel or Glass-lined): these are used in the fermentation process when winemakers want to preserve the fresh, pure fruit flavors and colors of the grapes sans the effects of oak; many New World-style wines are made in this fashion; these wines are generally made to be consumed now and are not for cellaring

The last and very important thing to realize is that every wine is unique and whether it’s fermented in stainless steel or aged in new French oak barriques, each has its own merits. However, this entry would be incomplete without mentioning that some of the finest wines in the world (red Bordeaux, Burgundian Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, Napa Cabs, and Italian Barolo, among others) come to be because of the type of oak used and the length of time spent in it (just during fermentation, the ageing process, or for both). Because these wines have a substantial amount of fruit, tannin, acidity, and alcohol from the get-go, they are able to withstand long-term ageing, and, as a result, develop into richer, more complex wines that display fruit aromas and flavors as well as sweet, toasty aromas and notes of vanilla, tea and tobacco. You could say that fine wines such as the ones I mentioned above “saw oak”… and liked it.

Have you found that you prefer wines that have benefited from oak ageing or ones that were fermented in stainless steel, which are generally more straightforward, fresh, and fruity in style?

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