Wine Barrels Explained
Wine barrels have a large impact on the quality of wine as they add aromas, texture, flavor, and tannins. The different kinds of oak used and the amount of time wine spends in the barrel will have a great impact on this magical juice we so enjoy.
French Oak vs. American Oak
First, let’s look at the different types of Oak used to make barrels. The most common types are American Oak (Quercus alba) and French Oak (Quercus robur/Quercus petraea/Quercus sessiliflora). American Oak has a looser grain and imparts very robust flavors such as coconut, dill, and vanilla. French Oak, on the other hand, is more elegant with a tighter grain and contributes subtler flavors such as exotic spices and mocha and leans towards a silkier texture. All of the barrels we use at Freemark Abbey Winery are made from French Oak.
New Oak vs. Neutral Oak
Now, what about new oak barrels vs. neutral oak barrels? We tend to use a combination of new and neutral barrels. Once a barrel has been used two or three times it becomes neutral, meaning that it is no longer imparting such vivid characteristics to the wine.
Here at Freemark Abbey Winery, we most commonly use a medium-sized barrel (about 60 gallons), which can hold 25 cases of wine. The size of the barrel is important due to the surface area of the wood coming into contact with the wine. We also age our wines in the barrel for a longer period of time than some of our neighboring wineries, which adds to the overall oxygenating process and tannin content. This is a costly way to make wine, as we can lose up to five gallons a year per barrel due to evaporation (this lost wine is known as "the angels' share") and the wine soaking into the barrel (this lost wine is known as "the devil's cut").
So how does the toast level of the barrel impact the flavor profile? Barrels are toasted by the Cooper (i.e. barrel maker) at varying levels to the specifications of our winemaker. The different toast levels range from light to heavy and will impart flavors such as vanilla, mocha, toffee, smoke, and char. When a barrel is toasted quickly, sweeter flavors are created, whereas a slower toast imparts a gentler tannin profile.
With so much riding on the type of barrel chosen and time that the wine is aged in the barrel, it is easy to understand why winemakers compare their barrel selection to a chef choosing the best ingredients and spices for their piece de resistance.