Boozy Barrels

For the love of oak, that tastes good! 

Aging wine in oak barrels simply makes wine more palatable for the consumer. If your mouth starts to water just thinking about a buttery Chardonnay with flavors like shortbread and vanilla, that flavor is oak's influence on your wine of choice. Cool, huh?

I needed a birthday gift last week for my boyfriend who loves a good Old Fashioned and is mostly indifferent to wine. I know, who is indifferent to wine? Well, he is and I definitely am all for everything involving any kind of wine. So, on a recent trip to my local Vons (let me qualify--it was in Scripps Ranch because the one near my house on Adams Avenue has one aisle of wine and never has what you're looking for), I discovered bourbon and whiskey barrel-aged red wine.  

Interesting, I thought, what flavors does this aging process impart? Would whiskey lovers pick up tasting notes they also find tasty in whiskey/bourbon?

Wait, I don't even know much about barrel-aging wine! I work at a restaurant called The Barrel Room, for goodness' sake. So I got to it already and did some investigating into the history of barrels and their impact on the wine making process.

Origins

Clay pots and amphorae are some of the first methods used in wine storage during ancient Greek and Roman times. Clay-based vessels predate wooden containers for storage of wine. During the late 2600 BC in Egypt, straight-sided, open wooden buckets that employed the craft of the cooper were documented. Fully-closed barrels were first developed during the Iron Age (800-900 BC) for holding wine, beer, water, milk, and olive oil. Trade and transportation encouraged shippers to use only sealed wooden containers (fragile clay vessels were not ideal) so then the craft of cooperage was launched. 

Advantages of Barrel-Aging

Subtle flavors are imparted to the wine as it ages in the barrel. A barrel essentially does two things:

  1. It allows a very slow introduction of oxygen into the wine.
  2. Certain characteristics of the wood are imparted into the wine (vanilla).

For red wines, controlled oxidation takes place during barrel aging. This gradual oxidation results in decreased astringency and increased color and stability. Fruit aromas evolve into more complex ones. By utilizing a program of topping the wine (filling up the barrel) while it is in the barrel and then racking the wine, these beneficial effects occur over a period of many months.

Oak wood is composed of several classes of complex chemical compounds, each of which contributes its own flavor or textural notes to both red and white wines. The most familiar flavor of these are vanilla flavors, sweet and toasty aromas, notes of tea and tobacco, and an overall structured complexity of tannin that mingles with the tannin from the fruit itself (in the case of red wines).

The specific compounds creating these delightful nuances in the finished wine are:

  • Volatile phenols (cool band name, eh?) containing vanillin
  • Carbohydrate degradation products containing furfural, a component yielding a sweet and toasty aroma
  • "Oak" lactones imparting a woody aroma
  • Terpenes to provide "tea" and "tobacco" notes
  • Hydrolysable tannins, which are important to the relative atringency or "mouth-feel" of the wine.

Aging Wine Before Bottling

After fermentation, wine is racked several times to remove the bigger solids. Young wines can be rough on the palate. Youthful wine is raw and "green", which needs to settle for some time before consumption. This process can be done in neutral containers like stainless steel, cement vats, older casks, etc. or in smaller and newer wood barrels, which are not neutral-tasting but will influence the developing wine.

Well, I hope you have learned a little bit about the barrel-aging process now that you've read this info! This was a fun one and further encouraged me to explore the world of wine. It's scientific, it's interesting, and it's freaking delicious!