What a difference a barrel makes

Why most of the world's fine wines are aged in wooden barrels.

wine barrels 88 298 (photo credit: Ofer Zemach)
wine barrels 88 298
(photo credit: Ofer Zemach)
At a recent barrel-tasting at the Margalit Winery, Asaf Margalit demonstrated the distinctions between storing wine in barrels made from French oak and those made from American oak. The Margalit Winery was established in 1991 by Asaf's father, Dr. Yair Margalit. It was the first and remains one of the most interesting boutique wineries in Israel. Until the establishment of Margalit, the Israeli wine industry was tightly controlled by the big wineries. After Margalit broke the hold, dozens of wine growers tried to follow his initiative and began producing their own wine. Together with Asaf, and with the help of Prof. Rami Livneh, Dr. Margalit, who is a scientist of wine chemistry by profession, crafts robust red wines, maintaining his Bordeaux-style establishment as one of Israel's foremost wineries. Located in the heart of an orange orchard next to Hadera, this small winery produces 20,000 bottles annually, most of which are sold to private customers. The winery owns two vineyards, one in the biblical village of Kadita in the Upper Galilee where Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Petit Syrah varietals are grown on volcanic soil; and one in Binyamina, where Cabernet Franc grapes are grown on terra rossa soil. The hand picked grapes arrive at the winery in small buckets and are crushed and then fermented in stainless steel tanks. After 14 to 20 days of fermentation the juice is moved to oak barrels for 12 to 18 months, a period which has a significant influence on the final character of the wine. Ninety percent of the barrels used by Margalit are made of French oak and 10% are American oak, all made by Seguin-Moreau in Cognac. Every year a third of the barrels are replaced. To avoid oxidation, the barrels are kept full with wine by topping up twice a month until the wine is optimally matured to be bottled. A true Bordolese blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc grapes is used for Margalit's top series wine, 'Enigma'. This full-bodied, very elegant wine features a unique complex of aromas and flavors. From blackberries to plums, from violets to vanilla, and even with hints of bitter chocolate, this is one of the best products the local wine industry has to offer. The blend for Enigma is made prior to aging, shortly after fermentation. The blend for the Special Reserve series, composed of Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Syrah, is also prepared shortly after fermentation. The blends for the winery's other series are determined while the young and raw wine is in the barrels. During the aging period, the wine is transported between the different barrels until it reaches the ultimate blend. The final blend of the wine is based on weekly tasting and the potential of the wine to develop. The wine is moved among the different barrels due to the subtle flavors imparted to it as it ages. Different types of oak from different regions give differing levels of flavor to the wine. While resting in the barrel, wine undergoes subtle chemical changes that result in greater complexity and a softening of the harsh tannins and flavors present at the end of fermentation. "During barrel aging, we are looking for two things," says Asaf, "A very slow introduction of oxygen into the wine and imparting the character of the wood into the wine." The influence of barrel-aging on the character of a wine is based on several factors, including the type of wood used, the age of the barrel, the techniques used to make the barrel and the period of aging. Historically, the type of wood the winemaker chose was a question of tradition, wine variety, economics and personal taste. Oak, due to its strength, workability and lack of undesirable flavor or color extractives, is used almost exclusively in the barrel aging of fine wines. Oak has a relatively tight grain, which permits a more gradual extraction of wood flavors and minimizes wine loss through evaporation. It also is flexible, enabling staves to be bent without breaking. The choice of French or American oak barrels depends on a wine's style and flavor. There is a difference of opinion between the majority of winemakers, who insist on French oak, and a growing minority that uses American oak. While both American and French oak contribute tannin and aroma, French oak contains more tannins and flavor components and has a less "oaky" flavor and smell than American oak. American oak has a more aggressive feel in the mouth and contains more vanilla aroma and more odorous compounds. The distinction is most pronounced in new barrels and becomes less significant as the wood ages. A winemaker selects the type of wood and barrel-making methods according to the style of wine he creates. Margalit produces wines with a lovely elegance that I always enjoy. The wines feel silky in the mouth and have a good weight, with lots of soft fruity aromas balanced by ripe tannins. 2The wine industry can truly be proud of this boutique.