Wood is good
By Mike Rosenberg
Photo: Estancia 2011 Monterey County chardonnay
Go to any winery and you’ll find oak barrels everywhere being used for fermenting wine, for storage or just for decoration. Obviously, there’s some reason, for years, wine and barrels have been united in the wine drinker’s consciousness. Why do winemakers use barrels?
For an answer, let’s set the Wayback Machine for the early days of winemaking – 4,000 years ago, give or take several centuries. Early winemakers figured out how to ferment grape juice into something delicious – but once you’ve got wine made, you’ve got to be able to store it and move it around. The storage containers available were fired clay pots, called amphorae. They worked well – so long as you didn’t drop them or have a stray mule kick a hole in one out of spite.
During the Iron Age, fully-enclosed wooden barrels were developed. They were stronger than clay, they didn’t usually break into a million pieces and they could be stacked, rolled and moved more easily. They became the medium of choice.
Somewhere along the line, winemakers began to notice the flavors in many wines change, improve and become more complex during time in barrel. This happens for two reasons: First, especially where red wines are concerned, small amounts of oxygen get to the wine while it’s stored in a barrel. This gradual oxidation tones down the sharpness of the tannin in the juice, makes the wine a deeper color and preserves it for a longer period of time.
Second, as the wine seeps into the grain of the wood, it picks up chemical compounds that impart certain flavors and aromas – usually vanilla, tobacco, spice and a “toasty” flavor. White wines pick up less of the flavor than do reds, since the barrels are usually used for fermentation rather than storage.
As time passed, winemakers found different types of oak affect the wines in different ways. There are three common types of oak – American, French and East European (usually Hungarian). The differences basically come down to the wood grain. American oak has a wider grain than French oak, so the wine penetrates the wood more deeply, a stronger, smokier flavor than French oak. French oak tends to bring a spicier flavor. Hungarian oak is similar to French oak, although there’s a sweeter characteristic that gets imparted from those barrels.
The flavor of oak, like any other flavor in wine, can be overdone. I remember, for years, Meridian chardonnay tasted to me like chewing on a charcoal briquette, but lots of people obviously call for that sort of flavor. Thankfully, cooler heads have prevailed on the oaking of wines – and there’s a great deal more balance to be had out there with both reds and whites.
Also, as a reaction to the heavy oak, some enterprising winemakers began marketing “unoaked” wines. This means they’re fermented and stored entirely in a different type of container. Removing the oak – as you would imagine – creates a very different wine, even with similar starting juice.
As an experiment in the difference between oaked and unoaked wines, I selected a couple of wines for a side-by-side tasting. I tried to find something from the same producer, same area, same vintage and a similar price point – one of which was done with oak, the other without. After a bit of searching, I came across this pair of chardonnays: Estancia 2011 Monterey County chardonnay and Estancia 2011 Monterey County unoaked chardonnay.
Doesn’t get much more similar than that, I guess! Both of these are $10-14 bottles. To go as a pairing alongside these wines, we went with slow-cooked salmon filets with chickpeas and mustard greens.
The difference in these wines was pretty striking. We started with the unoaked one. Rather than being fermented in barrels, this wine was done in stainless steel. Typically, I find most unoaked wines to be fairly crisp and light. This Estancia was not light at all. In fact, it had a pretty considerable weight – I’d go so far as to call it a little “fat.” The main flavors I pulled from this were pear and lemon, if you smeared both of them in butter. The finish was full of cream, and almost cloying. I honestly didn’t care very much for it. As it got some air, the buttery characteristics toned down a bit – but just the same, I thought the flavors weren’t all that interesting. With the food, it was just OK.
The reason for oak became pretty clear when we tried the oaked version. According to the winemaking notes, half of the juice for this wine is fermented in oak, with half of the oaked wine being in new barrels. Not surprisingly, this imparted a very strong vanilla and toasted wood flavor to the wine, which was a shock to the palate after tasting the first one. As it got air and the smoke “blew off” a bit, the wine improved greatly. The flavor profile of the wines is basically the same, except the vanilla and toast of the oaked version balances the wine’s flavors and makes it, ultimately, a more pleasant wine to drink.
Only through tasting and trial will you decide how much oak is best for your palate. Once you find a wine you like that has that toasty flavor, however, make sure you look at the winemaker notes. That way, you’ll be able to find other wines made in a similar style.
Reach DCP freelance writer Mike Rosenberg at MikeRosenberg@DaytonCityPaper.com
or visit his blog at TheNakedVine.net.