The wooden barrel has been used for millennia. Originally coveted for its convenience and mobility, it was widely used for the storage, transport and packaging of both dry and wet goods. Before the advent of the forklift and pallet, rolling an 80 pound barrel was far more feasible than manhandling that weight.
The newer the oak barrel, the more tannins and flavors leech into the wine. Oak is part of the winemaker’s spice rack, as it were. Just as a budding chef may over-season a dish, a winery may get a little crazy with new oak barrels, making wine that tastes more like woodchips than wine.
Redwood has proven too inflexible for the production of the traditional 60-gallon barrel, and chestnut too porous and tannic. Oak, with its workability, tight-grain and desirable flavor influence, is the global choice of wine producers.
Just as winemakers and consumers have realized their preference for specific grape varietals from specific regions, coopers (the builders of barrels) have chosen wood from specific forests in France, America and Hungary.
Barrels are constructed from galvanized iron hoops and about 30 wooden staves (strips of wood) split from 60- to 100-year-old oak trees. Fire and water make the staves malleable. The inside of all barrels are fire-roasted to caramelize the natural sugars in wood. Besides planing the wooden staves and winching metal cables to tighten the barrel, the cooper’s skilled eye, mallet and wedge keep the production of barrels in artisan hands and out of mindless machines. Nearly all red wines benefit from some time in either used or new oak barrels. After the transformation from juice to wine, time spent in barrel (often 12-18 months) gives the wine a chance to mature, shed some baby fat and allows aggressive alcohol and tannins to mellow—like the maturation period from teenage miscreant to chivalrous adult.
A reccurring theme in the recent history of wine is French versus American, and the oak barrel is no exception. Five forests in France are highly regarded for their tight-grained oak trees. The tighter the grain, the less obvious the barrels’ influence. As wine ages in barrel, a small amount of oxygen transfer promotes the development of complex compounds. French oak is touted for its influence of spice flavors—often perceived as cinnamon, nutmeg, clove and allspice. American oak has a larger grain and a much higher concentration of vanillin, imparting more prominent flavors of vanilla, cedar and smoke.
Oak chips or staves placed in stainless steel tanks are an inexpensive means to an end. When used haphazardly, these methods impart a taste about as natural as orange-hued tans look.
Many palates have grown to enjoy, and demand, the warm and cozy baked apple, toasty, vanilla-tinged, richer flavor profile that traditionally oaked Cali-Chardonnay offers. The judicious use of oak imparts complexity, but when used in overzealous doses, it obscures the varietal’s true character—like a natural beauty with too much collagen and Clinique.
Many guests pine about not knowing this or that about wine. The one solace I impart to any oenophile is that “you know what you like when you taste it.” Go out and try Chateau St. Jean Chardonnay ($16.99) and the squeaky-clean, unoaked Alondra Chardonnay ($11.99) and let your palate decide your preference.
Louis Koppel is sommelier at Spencer’s for Steaks & Chops.