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Getting the Oak and Taking the Journey

Posted On October 1, 2020

By Ann Marie Thornton

Around our house, a typical family gathering is likely to start with “Are you getting the oak on this?” and its reply, “Oh, yeah, baking spices, cinnamon, a bit of dark chocolate….”, the hallmarks of aging wines in French oak. A couple years back, when I embarked on an odyssey of wine education, my entire family jumped aboard. I had serious goals of refining my palate and bringing new methods to our cider-making. However, once our grown daughters started swirling their stemware and making sensory pronouncements, the whole endeavor got a lot more lively.  

Now when we get together, corks start popping. Typically, we open two or more similar wines and explore their differences. Barrel-aging happens to be one of our favorite topics and among the most approachable. Deciding whether or not a wine has been aged in barrels, and if so, what type of wood the barrels are made from is an easy way to begin evaluating a wine, especially if you have a bit of a roadmap to get you thinking about what clues you might find.

Barrel-aging contributes aromas, tannins and texture in a distinctly different way than aging wine in stainless steel. Most barrels are constructed of oak from either the U.S. or France. American oak is typically known for contributing aromas of vanilla, coconut and sometimes dill and sweet spices. French oak, on the other hand, contributes warm baking spices such as cinnamon and allspice and occasionally deeper flavors such as coffee and dark chocolate. French oak has a tighter grain and generally has a lighter and more restrained effect on wine than American oak, but many factors such as the size and age of the barrel, the heaviness of the char or toasting on the inside of the barrel, and the length of time wine spends in the barrel all contribute to the intensity of the barrel influence.

The effect of a barrel on the tannins in wine depends largely on the original complexity and tannic character of the blend. A less tannic wine, such as a Chardonnay, can take on tannic character from a barrel and develop more sophisticated aromas and flavors. On the other hand, a young, high-tannin wine such as a Cabernet Sauvignon blend, generally benefits from a softening of its tannins while aging in wood.

The texture of wine also is affected by whether it matures in wood or stainless. Barrel-aged wines are often encouraged to enter a phase of malolactic fermentation which mutes the acidity of the wine and develops a more rich, creamy mouthfeel. It also is natural for wines to darken in color after exposure to a barrel and its toast and char. Sometimes a portion of wine evaporates naturally through the barrel which serves to concentrate and intensify the blend. Maturing in stainless steel is more likely to preserve light, fruity flavors and minerality in wine.

Chardonnay is a good example of a wine that has a distinctly different flavor profile when oaked versus not, so it is a good place to start analyzing the effect of barrel-aging for yourself. Chardonnay, the white wine grape of Burgundy, is enormously popular and grows well in wine regions across the globe. I compared a 2018 Pouilly-Fuissé “Authentic” from Domaine Sangouard-Guyot with a 2018 La Crema from the Sonoma Coast. The Pouilly-Fuissé has a light straw color, whereas the La Crema is a couple shades darker, closer to a light gold. The color distinction could have been my first clue, but the aromas of cream soda and a hint of smoke wafting with citrus and lemon curd solidified my supposition that the La Crema was oaked and the Pouilly-Fuissé was not. The La Crema is simultaneously tart and creamy like lemon curd and a bit sour. Whereas the Pouilly-Fuissé is lighter with more lemon, some wet slate, more complex with floral notes, as well.  

Sensory analysis can seem intimidating. However, choosing a singular aspect of the wine to evaluate can make it much simpler and, if you can share the experience as a bit of a game, so much the merrier. In a year when opportunities to travel are so limited, sipping wine from around the globe and contemplating where it grew and how it was made, can be its own journey. Time to raise a glass!