You never forget a barrel-tasting in a wine cellar; climbing down and discovering the charm of the place, the subdued light, the glint of the glass pipette, the swirling and spitting – the privilege of witnessing the creation of a great wine in the making. But how did the barrel come to be such an integral part of winemaking?
The Older, the Better..?
At first glance, the barrel appears to be a pretty poor method of storing anything, let alone something as delicate and valuable as wine. During the time of the ancient Greeks, ceramic pots were used for the job, sealed with resin for later consumption. Wines raised in barrels, on the other hand, often turned to vinegar and were drunk young because they couldn’t be stored. This situation endured until the 17th century, when the first glass bottles came onto the scene.
When we look at the science behind wine making, we discover that the barrels have several things going for them which account for their popularity in winemaking. For a start, barrels impart some chemicals in their wood directly into the wine, which has a beneficial effect whilse the wine ages. Secondly, barrels enable wines to be oxygenated, slowly but regularly – a little through the wooden slats and joints, and through the bunghole too. This activates further chemical reactions which fix the color, soften the tannins and round the flavors. However, in reality, things rarely work perfectly, and plenty can go wrong.
Oaked or unoaked
The forests of Burgundy are the original – and still the best – place to get wood for barrels. The Gauls made them from the great oak trees which still supply the barrel trade to this day. Originally, they were made simply for transport and not for storage. But nowadays, the time that wines spend in barrels is one of the most important factors which contributes to the character of the wine we will eventually be drinking.
The aromatic wood of the oak barrel can be used simply to impart flavor to the wine. But it’s all a question of balance – unfortunately, over-using oak is all too common. In the USA, many have become so used to over-oaked wines that they think the Chardonnay grape itself is responsible. When expert tasters also get confused and mistake the grape variety they’re tasting, you can forgive the everyday drinker their confusion! Unfortunately, it also means that because many people now expect a strong oaky flavor in their wine, some wine merchants specifically request that their wines are made like this.
But there are signs of a sea-change now, with Burgundy winemakers (and much of the market) now moving away from too much new, strident oak flavor. This is especially true in the quality domains which the region originally became famous for, and which are too subtle and enigmatic to need much help from oak.
According to that most inimitable of Burgundy producers, Roger Capitain, oak in wine is a bit like adding salt to soup – a small amount can enhance the flavor, but add too much and you can ruin it. The rule is simple, but surprisingly often overlooked. Further wisdom on the subject says that you can’t make a good wine from a mediocre wine just by adding oak, either. The wine has to be of sufficient quality and character if it is to be able to work well with the wood. And when we’re talking of the powerful flavors of new oak, only use those barrels for a portion of the grape harvest.
For many years the Capitains have been proponents of introducing new oak into the cellar rotation every year. But only 10% of each cuvee. The other 90% gets raised in barrels of varying ages, each bringing different qualities to the final assemblage. Capitain wines are made that way to this day. They continue to be our bench-mark for judicious use of oak. Fine, elegant, true to their terroir and full of character.
The many small but expert producers that Elden Selections work with all have their own special ways of using oak. At the Domaine Potinet-Ampeau, for example, the maximum proportion of new wood in their Allier oak barrels is 30% per year. At the Domaine Mouton, half of their wine is oak-aged, the amount of oak and the age of the barrels depending on the wine and the vintage (25% new oak). The other half is raised in stainless steel. And at the Domaine Jean Fery they opt for 50% of their oak being new wood.
Good vs Great
In something as variable and complex as winemaking, there are no absolutes. So there isn’t one simple rule about how to use oak across the board. But it does call for some ‘finesse’; using the barrel, for example, to preserve the freshness of the fruit is a delicate balancing act. And even for the most gifted winemakers, the quest for that balance is the work of a lifetime.
Do you want to read more about Burgundy Wine, the best small producers we know and the land they work on? If so, then simply head over to our blog to read our articles on some of the different regions of Burgundy, some great How To guides, and to meet some of our best vignerons. Plus – we’d love you to be a part of our Burgundy Wine Club – discover more and sign up here.