In our last edition, we started the discussion of oak fermentation and aging…Unlike fruit flavors or sweetness, which come from the grape, oak flavors in a wine come from the winemaker. Master Sommelier Andrea Immer refers to the oak barrel as “marinade for wine.” It can make the wine darker, the aroma stronger, the taste richer and/or the body fuller. Oak barrels are one of the major methods used to impact the style of a wine. Wine can be fermented and/or aged in oak barrels before it is bottled. The amount of time it spends in the barrel will determine the amount of oak character added to the wine. In addition to time in the barrel, some other factors are important in determining how “oaky” a wine becomes:
- The age of the barrel – New barrels give the wine a stronger character than previously used barrels
- The size of the barrels – Smaller barrels give more oak character than larger barrels
- The “toast” of the barrel – To curve the shape of a barrel, the barrel maker, or cooper, heats the wood by placing it over a fire. In the process, the interior gets toasted, which affects the oak flavor given to a wine. The more toast, the more oak character.
‘”Oaky” wines have been popular for quite awhile now. People appreciate the richness associated with oak. However, oak isn’t always best. For example, white wines aged in steel tanks, rather than oak, tend to offer a crisper, lighter flavor that is often more refreshing on a hot summer day. The flavor of the grapes is also not overshadowed by oakiness. And, perhaps best of all, unlike oak barrels which are hard to clean and maintain and wear out relatively quickly, steel tanks are virtually indestructible and easier to clean and reuse – thus the wines fermented and aged in them tend to bear a slightly lower price tag than their oak-aged counterparts.
Tidbits to Amaze and Delight Your Friends – Beaujolais Nouveau
It’s the season or the new crop of Beaujolais Nouveau. This fun, fruity red is meant to be drunk within 6-months of bottling (guess how much oak you’ll taste in this one…) and just arrived on store shelves last week. (The release of the wine on the Third Thursday in November is practically a national holiday in France). The bad weather in France last summer made this one of the best vintages in a long time (see Chris Kassel’s article in the Article of the Week link off the Wine Tips and Education page on our web site). Aside from being a quick cash crop for winemakers, Beaujolais Nouveau is also used as a sort of “preview” to what the winemaker will produce in the spring – and this year’s crop seems quite tasty. Try pairing it with your big Thanksgiving meal for a light, fruity change.