Wine Flavors from Barrel Aging - Part 2

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Last time we learned that aging wine in barrels can impart flavors ranging from none, in older 'neutral' barrels, to subtle hints of vanilla, or bolder flavors of chocolate and smokiness, depending on the barrels age and the degree to which its inside was toasted.

But, barrel aging can also affect a wine’s flavor in a very different way. And, that has to do with a very important component of air, namely oxygen.

Originally, wood barrels were used as a means of transporting wines over great distances. It was somewhat accidentally discovered during this transportation process, that the longer the wine was inside the barrels, the more the wines would change in character - in a positive way.  

This was partially due to the wine’s flavor being directly affected by long-term contact with the wood’s surface.  But, it was also discovered that wood, by its very nature, allows microscopic amounts of air to pass through the barrel and to the wine inside. This minimal exposure of wine to oxygen was found to soften the fruit flavors of the wines and create other flavor notes.

This, quite accidentally, began the practice of aging wine in wood barrels, notably oak.  Today, red wines will typically see a minimum of one to two years of aging in oak barrels before being bottled.

And, we’ll take a look at bottle aging next time. Until then,  Cheers!



Wine Flavors - The Grapes


Last time, we started the exploration of wine flavors. And, basically, a wine's flavor comes from the grapes, the fermentation process and its aging. So, let's jump right in and start with the star of the show, the grapes.

You might think "Well, of course a wine's flavor comes from the grapes." And, yes, the grapes are extremely important in the wine making process and form the basis for how the wine will taste. But, within a grape variety, there can also be tremendous variations associated with factors such as where the grapes are grown and when they are harvested.

Location is very important. Factors such as day and night time temperatures, sunlight, the amount of rainfall and soil type all play into a wine's terroir. Grapes grown in cooler climates such as in Bordeaux, will tend to have their red fruit flavors enhanced (e.g., cherry and red currant) and be a bit lighter in body while warmer climate Cabernet Sauvignon grapes grown in California's Napa Valley produce bigger fruit flavors (e.g., blackberry, black currant and black cherry).

Harvest time also plays a huge role in a wine's flavor.  Winemakers are constantly checking the sugar levels of the grapes in the vineyard (Brix) as they ripen. As the sugar levels increase in the grapes, the acid levels that produce tartness will decrease. So, winemakers chose the Brix-to-acid ratio that will produce the flavor of wine they are looking for.

Where the grapes are grown and when they are harvested plays a huge role in the flavors of all wines. But, once these flavors are established, the fermentation process and aging will also contribute to a wine's final flavor. We'll look into these factors in the next couple of blogs. Until then, Cheers!


What is Beaujolais Nouveau?

Ever heard of Beaujolais Nouveau?  Well, its name literally mean 'new Beaujolais' and it really is 'new.'  

On the third Thursday of each November, France releases Beaujolais Nouveau wine to the world. The 'new' part of this wine is due to the fact that the grapes used to make this wine are picked from the vineyards just a couple of months prior to its release!  Yes, just of couple of months! That's compared to most wines that spend a year or more going through the fermentation and aging process before being bottled and shipped to market.  But Beaujolais Nouveau gets from the vineyard to you in about two months!

Word has it that this wine was originally produced for the harvest workers in France to immediately thank them for all their hard work just after harvest was complete. But now its production is somewhere between 30-60 million bottles so that the entire world can enjoy.

This wine is named for the village of Beaujeu in France, which is a small region just south of Burgundy. And there is a celebration in France each year, the 'Les Sarmentelles' festival to celebrate the release of Beaujolais Nouveau that includes music, dancing, fireworks and plenty of wine.

This wine is produced entirely from handpicked Gamay grapes and because it is so new, it is very fresh and fruity. Many describe Beaujolais Nouveau as having flavors of candied cherries, strawberries, red plum, bananas and even bubble gum!  When was the last time you heard of a wine having flavors of banana and bubble gum?  

Many may say that Beaujolais Nouveau is "not very good," but you have to look at the fact that millions of bottles are sold worldwide and that Beaujolais Nouveau is meant to be enjoyed, not critiqued.  What you will find is that this wine is low in tannin (doesn't make you mouth feel dry) and has high acidity (mouth watering) and is great with foods.

So go out to a local wine store and pick up a bottle or two of Beaujolais Nouveau.  It's not going to be the best wine you've ever tried, but it will be an experience. And raise your glass to the French harvest workers and, for that matter, all vineyard harvest worker around the world. Rather than critique it, just enjoy it!  Cheers!



Oak and Its Effect on Wine's Flavor

Last time we discussed how all the fruit flavors get into wine. We discussed that wines don't actually contain fruit other than grapes, but the grapes, the soil they are grown in, the fermentation process, and the aging process can impart other fruit flavors.

Another way that flavors can be added to wine is through oak aging.  Oak barrels add additional quality, character and smoothness to wines and can create flavors of vanilla, butterscotch, coconut, toffee, caramel, butter, mocha, coffee and smokiness. 

The vanilla flavor in wines come directly from compounds in the oak itself. But often the interiors of wine barrels are 'toasted' over an open flame. This process affects the degree of flavor added to the wine. Barrels may be toasted light, medium or heavy. Light toasting of the barrels results in wines having flavors of butterscotch, toffee, caramel, coconut, and butter. Wine flavors of mocha, coffee and smokiness are brought out of the oak by heavier toasting of the barrels. 

Oak barrel aging is used for most red and white wines of the world. But, it comes with a cost.  French oak, which is considered the 'gold standard' of oak barrels, can cost $800 to $4000 dollars each.  And an oak barrel is only able to add flavors to wines through two to three uses. After that, oak barrels become 'neutral' and are simply used as vessels for storing wines with little or no flavor being added. Oak barrels from the U.S. cost $350 - $500 each and, like French oak, only impart flavor during their first two to three uses.

One oak tree can only produce enough wood for approximately two barrels, or 50 cases of wine. And, when aging wine in a barrel, the wine only comes in contact with the oak on the inside of the barrel. So, winemakers seek alternative ways of getting oak flavors in their wines. Options include adding oak chips, oak cubes or oak staves directly into the wine as it ages in stainless steel tanks. This allows the entire surface area of the oak to be in contact the wine and is much less costly than barrels.

So start paying attention to these wonderful flavors in your wines. And remember, all the flavors are coming from grapes, yeast and sometimes oak.  Cheers!