Barrel Basics

by Tamra Bolton

Ahhh…Spring!  It’s that time of year when the birds are singing, the grass is green again and everything is waking out of its winter sleep, including those precious grapevines.

One of our local wineries celebrates the new growing season every year by hosting an “Awakening of the Vines” party.  The festivities include vineyard tours, tastings and pairings and even a mariachi band.  What a fun way to kick off the spring season!

I love beginnings and exploring the creative processes that make things happen…which brings me to the subject of wine barrels.

Wine-making is an intricate process that involves precision and a huge amount of personal input …which is why we have thousands of different wines to choose from.  The on-going debate about French vs. American oak barrels is mostly a matter of preference, with neither being right or wrong choices.  Oak imparts particular flavors and tannins to a wine, with French oak barrels adding more tannin to the finished product, but giving the wines a certain finesse that the American oak barrels lack.  American oak delivers a coarser feel on the palate and also infuses more intense aromas.  Barrels can also be heavily toasted, medium or lightly toasted – each contributing unique scents and tannin to the wine.  The heavily toasted oak imparts more burnt aromas like coffee and chocolate, while the medium toasted barrel delivers a more “caramelized” scent like allspice, dulce de leche and vanilla.  Lightly toasted barrels deliver some of the benefits of oak aging without imparting an overwhelming oak character.

So the choice of oak barrels depends on the winemaker and the results they want, much like an artist choosing particular colors or strokes. What starts out as a blank canvas or “must”, becomes something beautiful in the hands of a master winemaker.

Celebrate a new season of wine-making by visiting your local wineries. Enjoy the beginning of that wonderful cycle of growth and harvest, looking forward to savoring the best wines of 2015.