The oak barrel is a flavoring agent that enhances a wine. Flavors leached into wine from a barrel may add an extra note to wine, which, after all, is made 100 percent from grapes and nothing else. However, if a chef uses too much of a particular spice in a dish, the balance of the dish may be ruined. Likewise, if a wine is barrel-aged for too long, the oak flavors may mask the fruit. The secret is to find the right balance.
Oak is not sweet, but oak aging does add a noticeable sweet character to a wine. Most will characterize this as vanilla, which is the basic first impression.
Other aromas that come to the fore with the practiced nose are toast, coffee, mocha, cedar, cigar box and tobacco. These secondary flavors provide a certain complexity when supporting the fruity aromas of a wine.
A young tannic, astringent red wine may be undrinkable, and the aromas will be tight and closed. Time in an oak barrel will allow the wine to grow up quietly. The fact that the wood is porous helps the slow oxidation of the wine.
The wood gives to the wine, the wine gives to the wood. Tannins will soften, the astringency of a young wine will subside, and the wine will become rounder over time.
Obviously, you need a wine with good tannins, concentrated fruit and solid structure to withstand oak aging. For instance, a light, young fruity red wine will lose its fruit and freshness if aged in a barrel. Despite the misconception, most of the wines in the world are not oak aged. However, most fine red wines are. A prestige red wine may be aged for up to 24 months in oak barrels. Less expensive wines have other options.
They may use oak chips, wooden staves or large older oak barrels to give the touch of toasty oak that can enhance the backdrop of a wine.
Obviously, a new oak barrel will give stronger oak flavors, and a used barrel that is one or two years old will have less flavor to impart. The winemaker will have to decide how much new oak he wants in a wine. Most wines will be a blend of wines that have undergone different oak regimes.
White wines generally based on fragrance, acidity and freshness are not usually oak aged. However, a neutral grape like Chardonnay benefits from oak aging. Often, even the fermentation takes place in oak barrels. The fullest bodied Chardonnays are not normally aged in oak for more than one year.
Oak has been proven to be by far the most suitable wood for the maturation of wines. French oak, which comes from a variety of forests like Alliers, Troncais or Vosges, is considered the best. American oak is considered slightly more aromatic.
A small French oak barrel may cost 600 euros. Some wineries are experimenting with oak from Eastern European countries as a less expensive option.
Barrels are ordered from a cooperage that ensures the oak staves are aged and weathered. They are then made into a barrel by a cooper with great skill, without the use of nails or glue. The wood may be thin grained or thick grained.
The staves will be toasted with an open flame as the barrel is put together. The result might be heavy, medium or lightly toasted, according to the wishes of the winemaker. The toastiness contributes to the flavor. A winemaker needs to be an expert on barrels, not just wine. The selection of which cooperage to use, the particular forest, type of grain and degree of toastiness are all carefully specified.
By the way, the word “barrel” is the one used usually for wine, but in the whiskey world it is more often known as a “cask.”
Barrels are stacked in a barrel cellar or barrel room at a fixed temperature with a humidifier. Some 120 years ago, the Rishon Lezion and Zichron Ya’acov wineries built deep underground cellars to maintain a constant cooler temperature.
Today, a winery builds a cellar for aesthetic purposes because it has electricity, and temperatures can be kept low without digging underground.
Barrels have to be constantly topped up because of evaporation. What is lost is never recovered. The lost bottles go to the angels, which is why it is known as the “angel’s share.”
The smaller the barrel is, the greater is the ratio of wine to the wood. Though the 225-liter size is most popular, some Israeli wineries use different sizes of 300 liters or 500 liters. The use of small barrels is relatively new. Some 120 years ago, wines were fermented in very large open-topped oak barrels. These were replaced by cement tanks in the 1920s. In the 1970s and 1980s, stainless-steel tanks came in, accompanied by small barriques, or 225- liter barrels. The first Israeli wine aged in small oak barrels was the legendary Carmel Special Reserve 1976.
Nothing is new under the sun in wine-making and, paradoxically, despite all the new technology, large barrels of 5,000 liters (known as a foudre in French) and cement tanks are coming back into popularity. At Zichron Ya’acov Wine Cellars, you will see refurbished cement tanks and a cellar of large foudre barrels. What goes around comes around.
The life of a barrel in a top winery is not that long. After four years, the barrels in a large winery may be sold to a domestic or boutique winery. The next stop maybe that they are cut in half and end up in the local garden center. Next time you see a cut half barrel full of flowers in someone’s garden, you can try to imagine what sort of wine experience it had in its earlier life.
Adam Montefiore works for Carmel Winery and regularly writes about wine in Israeli and international publications. firstname.lastname@example.org.