Oak barrels: What happens when the forest and the vine collide

French Oak BarrelI’m not sure if the noun has officially morphed into a verb: to oak. And I don’t think it’s an official adjective yet, since “oaky” still sends my spell check into gyrations. Oakiness, an indefinable yet ubiquitous presence in wine that’s derived from wood barrels, is something hated or loved by many a drinker. Winemakers use oak during fermentation and/or aging to soften harsh corners and enliven an otherwise boring wine. Much like a chef has herbs and spices, vintners possess a full pantry of oak tools that create the flavors in your glass.

Invented long ago from wood plentiful in Europe, the sturdy, rotund oak barrel began as easy transport for wine. Vintners soon discovered that soaking in the barrel’s oily and tannic belly improved the flavor and body of its contents and also preserved it. But it’s not just good seasoning — technology later revealed another advantageous angle: micro-oxygenation. This geeky term means the porous wood allows a minute amount of oxygen to seep through its walls, coaxing the wine to higher levels of Zen.

If you’ve sensed vanilla or smoke emanating from your glass, it didn’t start with the grape. It started in the forest. Oak trees, like the fruit they’re influencing, vary by locale, with wine barrels originating in France, the United States and increasingly Eastern Europe. A wine poured from a French oak barrel evokes rich, elegant vanilla; American oak, sweet coconut and earthy tobacco; and Polish or Hungarian (aka “European”) offer profiles similar to French yet not as powerful. After it’s felled, the wood staves are air- or kiln-seasoned for two to three years to tame the intensely aromatic, obdurate slabs. Then they travel to the toaster. Like marshmallows over a healthy campfire, barrel makers roast the oak to caramelize and tighten the wood’s pores, a process called “bousinage.” The deeper the toast, the more intense the flavor imbued to the wine while it ages. Winemakers mostly choose medium toast — proffering honey and spicy butteriness — and heavy toast, which introduces robust cocoa, coffee and clove.

These newly roasted barrels emerge richly infused, and with each year of aging use, that intensity wanes. After three to five vintages, the wine steeps out most of the oils and tannins, rendering the barrel “neutral” and essentially useless for winemaking use. Each barrel costs $400 (American) to $1,200 (French), so it’s a hefty investment to craft a better beverage.

Some wineries, however, take the cheap route. A few years ago, less expensive oak spirals, staves and chips were added to the spice rack. Blasphemy in the hallowed “premium” category, most winemakers admit these shortcuts provide some raw wood flavor but less of the barrel’s subtle, sweet richness.

But does all this experimentation and money birth a better wine? Michael Eckstein, winemaker at Franciscan Oakville Estate, offered me barrel samples of the same wines aged in American, European and French oak. The decidedly discernible differences floored me. A merlot in French tasted more subtle and elegant than that aged in a Hungarian barrel, and a cabernet in American oak emerged astringent and green compared with the soft, vanilla-infused French version. But the malbec sampling supershocked. Its French rendering reeked of beefy, funky earth, and the American oak displayed layers of fruit and softness. Same malbec, completely different results because of the company it kept for 18 months. Go figure — maybe that’s what prison is like.

With this exercise, I learned that, as with cooking, a wide variety of oak ingredients allows you to fashion a tastier wine. Oak, whether you like it or not, is only a tool, but kinda like salt and pepper — basic and essential.

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