~Some winemakers like their toast light, some prefer dark, and some go for the deep, nearly burnt, flavor—I am not talking about breakfast.
~Wine industries have existed for about 8,000 years, yet oak barrels began to become a wine industry mainstay after the decline of the Western Roman Empire about 1,500 years ago.
~Before Rome, wood was used only every so often to transport wine—there’s evidence that Armenians transported their cargo of wine to Babylon 4,000 years ago in barrels made of willow wood. The ancients had decided that the best vessel for wine storage was in airtight ceramics: the amphora probably holds the distinction of being the longest-lasting wine vessel in history.
~Before Rome fell, however, its province of Gaul (France) had already developed a preference for oak barrels. Maybe this was so because of the dense forests of northern Europe, or maybe they simply didn’t like doing as they do in Rome. Whatever their motive, the initial idea was neither to age nor to flavor the wine with wood—just to store and transport it in barrels.
~Barrels posed a few problems. In winter, the wine often froze while in transport, bursting the barrels. In summer, the wine sometimes got warm enough for it to expand and to leak from the barrels, which were not exactly airtight. Not being airtight, the barrels could help ruin a lot of wine through lengthy exposure to oxygen.
~Somewhere in the Age of Enlightenment cooperage became better understood: barrels were put together more tightly plus, wine producers and their customers discovered that slow oxidation in barrels made the wine more complex and thereby more interesting. Oak became, and still is, the preferred wood, for its density and its component make-up, not to mention its own age-ability.
~Jump ahead a few centuries and you find that barrels still provide that wonderful function of adding complexity to wine through gradual oxidation, but—and to me this is a BIG BUT—wood has also become the most identifiable flavor of so many wines, and I don’t necessarily mean wood from barrels.
Not long ago, American oak was considered inferior for wine, it having mainly been used for whiskey. The grain and density of American oak is different from French, and it imparts flavors in wine separate from the flavors of French oak. The flavors, however, have become more and more malleable by way of techniques like shaving the inside of used barrels and toasting the inside of new and used ones.
~The ballooning need for oak barrels coupled with more refined cooperage and winemaking techniques, not to mention diminishing natural resources, has brought the price of oak barrels to great heights. French oak, which, until recently, was preferred both here and in West Europe, is between $700 and $800 for one approximate 55-gallon barrel; American oak is about half the price.
~For a couple of decades New World wines kept upping the ante of oak flavor in wine. Some of us wine drinkers don’t like the direction. We remember wine as an agricultural product produced from grapes, and not from wood. Trouble is, we are getting old. So many people of legal drinking age today have been led to believe that oak flavor in wine is a given, and those consumers have come to like their wooded wines quite a lot.
~Unfortunately, not every wood lover has as much money as it takes to buy a daily bottle of oak barrel-aged wine. The wine industry has responded to this problem.
~A long time ago most tea was brewed as crushed leaves in a pot that had hot water poured over them; they brewed a bit and the resulting infused liquid was poured through a strainer into the cup. Then came the teabag and the straining was no longer needed, nor was the brewing pot. You stick the teabag into the cup, pour the hot water over it and you have instant tea. This is how a lot of wine gets its wood these days.
~They are called oak chips or dust. I have no idea how they are produced, but I assume it has to do with used up barrels being re-toasted, ground, and packed into bags. Winemakers dip the bags into their stainless steel tanks and let the wood flavor seep into the wine.
~Notice, I said stainless steel tank. Such large tanks are inert—no oxygen passes through them. So the purpose of the oak chips is not to create complex wine through oxidation; it is to flavor the wine with wood.
~The effects of barrel aging take long to take full hold because not all the surface of the wine gets to touch the wood directly. The effects of oak bags dipped into the wine are near instantaneous, and judging by the results of some wines on the market, a few winemakers must have fallen asleep after dumping their bags in.
~Oak bags are not the only choice; wood staves have joined them in the tanks. In a variety of patterns and forms (including a fan shape) wood slats are either hung inside or directly attached to stainless steel tanks. The slats are strategically placed to allow as much of the wine surface to “benefit” from the exposure to wood—for flavoring.
Tip: if that bottle of wood-saturated wine cost you about $12 or less (maybe up to $15 these days) it’s a cinch that the stuff never saw the inside of a barrel. Also, when you wade through the often deplorable grammar of the back label, where you learn about the producer’s family legend or the hillsides surrounding the vineyards, if, when describing the wine, the word “wood” shows up without the corresponding words of “barrel” or “aged” odds are that barrels had nothing to do with it.
~In either case—dipped bags or wood staves—if the winemaker happens to be one who remembers with fondness the oxidation effect of aging wine in real barrels he or she can always subject the wood-flavored wines to a process known as micro-oxygenation, a way to slowly add oxygen to wine to make it develop complexity by simulating aging.
~There was a time when I would have had to type this essay on something known as a typewriter that made an ink-stained imprint onto something else called paper. How in the world I would have distributed this blog to as many of you who read it is beyond my desire to calculate. I therefore suppose that railing any further against the tide of winemaking technology will seem like resistance to change.
~Change and technology notwithstanding, some of us tire quickly of wines that remind of a sawmill instead of a farm. Even if we preferred a lot of wood, we’d rather it got there by way of nice, long aging in a barrel.
~How about you?
Copyright, Thomas Pellechia
January, 2007. All Right Reserved.