Barrels are wonderful in the way they allow wine to breathe and develop. The effect of its wood on the wine is profound. Through the course of a year, a barrel will lose up to 9% of contents through evaporation —most of which is water and alcohol. But, over time, this process allows silky tannins and spicy notes to develop, along with a wide range of fruit notes. This is why wooden barrels can tame some of the more aggressive grape varietals such as Nebbiolo, from which sumptuous Barolo’s and Barbaresco’s are made. (The importance of wood to wine is so obvious that producers of bulk wine will try to replicate the effect by adding mesh bags of oak chips to their wine. You do get what you pay for; in this case it is usually a vanilla fruit bomb.)
The tremendous differences among the oaks used for barrel construction in various countries have a large impact on wine. Italian wine producers tend to favor barrels made from Slavonian oak, which has a tight grain and is known for low aromatics and medium level tannins. This type of wood is perfect for the traditional varietals, some of which spend as long as four years in barrel. American oak trees are from a different species that grows faster and has a wider grain then their European cousins. When used for the first time, their barrels are ideal for infusing wine with a large dose of aromatics. But the gold standard for barrel construction is French oak from five forest regions. Each imparts slightly unique characteristics to wine while offering a range of aromatics such as vanilla.
Oak trees are between 80 and 100 years old before being harvested. Historic concern for sustainability has fostered the longevity of this industry. After delivery to the cooperage, processing methods diverge yet again. The French split the wood along the grain, meaning that only 25% to 30% of the tree is used. Americans saw the wood, permitting almost twice as much wood to be utilized. Both the French and the majority of American barrel producers season the oak in wood-yards for up to 36 months, to leach out bitter tannins and other undesirable elements.
Because of these differences in region and cooperages many wine makers tend to purchase a variety of barrels, with varying degrees of toast, to maximize the complexity of their wine. Visit some of our local wineries’ cellars, and you will see a selection of barrels (in most cases French).
Next week, we’ll discuss how to prolong the life of barrels.
This week, I tasted the new release of Harwood Estate Vineyards 2010, St. Laurent ($20). While the 2010 Prince Edward County harvest did produce great fruit, it is the winery itself here that makes all the difference.
This wine has a deep, rich ruby color, with an inviting blend of cherry, violet and earthy leather on the nose. Its palate is silky smooth, with red fruits and a fresh cranberry finish. I could not help but compare this wine to a French red from the Loire Valley. It is a great food wine, with a light alcohol content, that allows flavors to shine.
The Harwood team takes great pride in not releasing a vintage until the time is right. Visit their tasting room located at 18908 Loyalist Parkway, just west of Hillier
Wines of the County is featured every week in The Times and on the East & Main Bistro website.