Wine barrels: French or American oak? Stainless steel or cement? Does it matter?
From the soil and the vineyard to the bottle and the table, the humble grape has a complex journey.
From the soil and the vineyard to the bottle and the table, the humble grape has a complex journey. Sadly, the time and the place the juice spends in fermentation and aging is frequently overlooked and these steps influence the outcome of the wine. The length of time a wine is fermented and aged and what it is aged in can make the difference between a glass of table wine and an award-winning memorable palate experience.
“Good wood does not make a great wine, it reveals it,” said Paul Pontallier in 1992.
From the tank to the bottle, some grapes prefer fermentation time in an oak barrel where they enjoy the benefits derived from white oak, while others lie comfortably in barrels/vats made from stainless steel or cement (egg or square shape). From wine makers to sommeliers from gourmets to gourmands, there is a debate as to the importance and significance of the barrel type and what (if any) influences it has on the final product.
While keeping wine in barrels started many years ago, the technique of maturing red wine in barrels started in the 18th century. The maturation in barrels is not an end in itself but a phase in the life of wine and through which it acquires its capacity to age in bottle. The objective of maturing wine is to encourage physical and chemical changes which are indispensable to its future.
The winemaker has many choices that include: American or French oak (barrels or chips), new or aged oak, cement (egg or square shaped) or stainless steel. Choice considerations are based on such variables as price, taste objectives, availability and controls.
1. Stainless Steel
Observing the use of stainless steel in the dairy industry inspired Emile Peynaud (1960s) to try it for winemaking. Haut Brion, an important Bordeaux producer (1961) considered the Peynaud recommendation and installed stainless steel tanks and has since become important in the industry.
Stainless steel vats have indisputable advantages for the vinification of red wine:
• Easy to maintain. The inside surface is smooth and cleaning is very efficient.
• Control. Stainless steel has thermal conductivity which reduces internal heating and simple cooling systems can be used (i.e., running water down the side or circulation of a coolant around the exterior walls).
• Durable. Steel wine barrels last for decades and do not impact on the taste of the wine. Should “oakiness” be desired, a few chips can be added.
• Inexpensive. Wineries use large quantities of barrels and steel allows a cost reduction; the expense can be recovered long before the barrels need to be replaced.
• Prevents oxidation. Lids can be placed tight, preventing oxidation and improving quality of the wine.
• Neutral flavor. No influence on the taste of wine; enables winemakers to experiment with different flavors. The finish is crisp, fresh and light and wine becomes more fruit forward.
• Environment friendly. No need to dispose of used oak barrels as the metal from the stainless steel can be recycled.
• Better wine. Not everyone likes “oakiness” in wine. Wine fermenting in stainless steel turns wine brighter and many think it tastes better.
• Shipping. Wine needs extra care when being packaged and shipped. Stainless steel barrels for packaging wine can be completely sealed eliminating leaks.
Since the Roman Empire, white oak has been the tree of choice for winemaking. Although it was originally used for storage, the winemakers quickly recognized that the oak barrels were adding value to the wine – making it softer and more flavorful.
White oak is strong, resilient and bendable. The trees are huge and yields straight grained stave bolts, makes a liquid tight container with minimal shrinkage (wet to dry) and has no objectionable flavors. However, it was not until the 1960s, when Robert Mondavi started to experiment with different types of oak and barrel styles that it became fashionable.
Proceed with Caution
Chopping down 100-year-old trees to make barrels for wine fermentation and storage may not appear the best way to cultivate sustainability. In addition, French oak barrels can cost US$4000+/-. As one barrel of wine produces 60 gallons of wine or 300 bottles, the cost of the barrel adds an additional expense to each bottle of wine. Other expenditures include storage (the aging of the wine in the barrel can run 20+ years), maintenance and barrel exhaustion, loss of wine due to evaporation, leakage and even spoilage.
Oak’s primary influences are on the nose and mouth. Oak accentuates aromas that center on the spicy (i.e., clove, cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla and allspice). On the palate, oak’s influence turns towards the rich flavors of caramel, coconut, vanilla, cinnamon, clove, smoke, tea, mocha, toffee and butter. Oak also improves the stability of the color and clarity of wine, offers more consistency to the taste of the wine while decreasing some of the harsher undertones found in young wines while embedding a smoother and deeper texture and softening tannins.
The fermenting of red wine in barrels improves the quality of the wine (compared to tank-fermented wines) through assimilation and textural enrichment. Aging wine on the lees (the yeast and sediment that settles to the bottom of the barrel during fermentation), imparts a creaminess and complexity that can’t be found in stainless steel.
Typically Oaked Wines
– Red wine varietals include: Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinotage, Chianti, Zinfandel, Nebbiolo, Tempranillo and Syrah
– White wine varietals include: Pinot Grigio, Pinot Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Chardonnay
2. French Oak
• French oak producing areas are: Lomousin, Allier, Troncais, Bourgogne, Nevers and Vosges.
• The oak is allowed to dry in open air and age for 24-36 months giving barrels a tighter grain that restricts air entrance through the pores.
• Flavor varies because of the many different barrels; however, the most common flavor hints include butterscotch, cedar, vanilla, coconut and a creamy texture.
• For example: Red Bordeaux is made with oak from the Allier which gives not only the most intense but also the smoothest and most pleasant wood characteristic. With Limousin oak the woodiness is not only aromatically more discrete but also sharper on the palate.
• Heavier flavors and increased tannin content are ideal for full-bodied wine varietals.
3. American Oak
• Made from White Oak.
• Trees grown in Eastern USA, Iowa, Kentucky, Ohio, Oregon, Missouri, Minnesota and Wisconsin.
• Dried using a kiln-dry methods allowing a quicker release of the aromas to the wine.
• More flavor quickly (sweet/vanilla overtones) than French Oak due to increased lactones; greater risk of over-“oakiness”.
• Quicker release of aromas helps wines lose their astringency and harshness faster.
• Good for shorter maturations (6-10 months).
• Offers modest tannin contribution.
• Allows fruit to interact with the wood offering wide variety of complex aromas and soft palatable tannins.
• Bolder than French oak – used for powerful red or for warm climate Chardonnays.
• Pronounced oxidation.
• Can be added (to cement or stainless steel vats) during fermentation or aging (placed in fabric sacks).
• Ages wine more quickly than wood barrels.
• Adds “oakiness” with strong vanilla flavors (in weeks rather than years).
• Flavor may be flat and/or heaving vanilla extract.
4. Other options: Oak planks/staves, Oak powder– may not age as well as wine matured in barrels.
5. Toasting Oak
• Barrel toasting varies: light, medium or heavy.
• Lighter toast: retains some of the oak based character for the wine.
• Heavier toasting or charring: more oaky and smoky nuances in the wine.
• Increased toasting: increase oak’s influence on the color, aroma, flavor and style of the wine.
6. Cement (egg or square shape)
• Concrete eggs mix ancient and ultra-modern winemaking techniques, since the first wines were actually fermented in pottery jars called amphorae.
• First egg vat commissioned by Michel Chapoutier (2001) after meetings with French vat manufacturer Marc Nomblot, a concrete wine vat manufacturer since 1922.
• Concrete has been used successfully since the 19th century for winemaking, but the egg shape is new and allows wine to have a natural convection current as the carbon dioxide released during fermentation helps to naturally stir the wine and mix in the sediment, or lees.
• In cement, process of juice to wine is slower because fermentation takes place at a lower temperature.
• Retains relatively constant temperature.
• Porous and allows micro-oxidization to evolve and develop a textured mouthfeel similar to oak.
• Develops a richer display of the fruit’s pure flavor characteristics.
• Offers a mild minerality perceived as a positive quality in lighter wines.
• Offers greater purity of fruit flavor and good for delicate white and rose wines.
• If winemaker chooses to mature the wine in oak barrels to add depth and character the wine can be matured in oak barrels.
Choices. No Correct Answer
Wine Evolves. Aging in barrel allows wine to develop new characteristics from slow/gentle contact with the air through the wood’s natural pores. Cement is also porous, but does not impart additional flavors associated with wood and the wine is likely to be more fruit forward.
It would be easy to select a bottle of wine if all the experts agreed on the best methodology to be used for making a terrific bottle of wine. Whether wines selected are at the top or bottom price points, there is no consensus on the best way to take the grape and transform it into a delicious tasting experience. Winemaking is both an art and a science.
To assist in selecting a making a wise wine choice the advice of sommeliers and wine merchants can be useful; however, the best way to determine personal taste preferences is to go out and buy bottles that have been processed using the different methods and making future decisions based on personal experience.
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