Ever wondered how two of the same types of wine taste different? Sometimes it has to do with the region, and sometimes it has to do with the winery itself in the process they use. For centuries, winemakers have been using the type of barrel the wine matures in to compliment the flavor and give the wine structure. Different types of oak barrels will add different levels of flavor. For example, American oak will impart a coconut taste, and French Oak will add ‘spice’. Many winemakers will also use oak chips or sticks to float in the vats of wine as opposed to using the expensive and time consuming method of a barrel. This type of treatment doesn’t give the long-term structural benefits, however it does add the complex flavor.
Think of wine barrels as a sort of spice rack; each type of barrel will introduce a different taste. The way the staves (the long pieces of wood that make up the barrel) have been seasoned is the biggest contributor to taste. A ‘Cooper’ will season these staves by toasting the insides with a flame to soften the wood flavor. Coopers are also using hot water as an alternative to fire to lend yet another level of flavor. The phenols in the barrel interact with the wine inside. Then there are stainless steel barrels that add nothing, while adding so much to the taste of the wine.
How the winemaker chooses to use the barrel will also affect the taste. If a winemaker chooses to ferment the wine in the barrel without aging it there, the yeasts interact with the flavor components resulting in a different level of influence. The winemaker can manipulate the flavors by switching the barrels during the maturity process to lift up flavors such as vanilla, coffee, mocha, butter, spice, caramel, along with a multitude of flavors.
For example, if you have wine in hand made entirely in stainless steel, you’ll notice the light and fruitiness of the wine. If the wine has been aged in an Oak barrel, you most likely will taste spice, cloves and vanilla, along with the drying sensation of tannins (that cotton mouth feeling you get from certain reds). If you sense toast or smoke, that’s the barrel’s influence-not the grape; not the soil.
Barrel aging is an expensive method. Many wineries, like Boxwood Estate Winery in Middleburg, ages 30% of its red Bordeaux-style blends in new barrels. At $1000 a barrel, it explains how the barrel contributes to the overall cost of a wine. New barrels naturally assert bolder flavors, as older barrels (barrels that have been used over and over) impart a more subtle flavor.
The next time you hold a glass of wine in your hand and take a swig, be present in the taste and see if it really tastes like an aged old oak, or does it just take like a tree?