Anyone who has ever wandered into a wine cellar for a barrel tasting remembers the charm. The dim light, the glass pipette, the swirling and spitting, and the privilege of witnessing something magical in the making.
Where did the technique of storing wine in barrels originate? For once, it’s not the Romans. Not even the Greeks. The Greek communities used the Greek ‘amphora,' an object that can be carried from two sides, to transport their wine. Caesar, in fact, after having bad-mouthed the use of barrels in his ‘Chronicles,' prevented the idea from catching on for another few hundred years. Meanwhile, the Gauls in the forests of Burgundy were only optimizing barrels for the purpose of brewing beer. The discovery that wine can age in barrels was a long time coming. The barrel, it must be said, is a pretty lousy storage medium. At least the Greeks could line their amphora with resin and seal them up, drinking the wine years down the road. Barrel aged wines, on the other hand, were evaporating, turning to vinegar, and needed to be enjoyed sooner rather than later. It wasn’t until the 17th century when the first glass bottle was invented, solving some of these problems. However, that’s not the point. The question remains, how did barrel aged wines become an art of winemaking?
OK, fast forward to the present day. Run down to the store. Randomly select a bottle off the shelf. What is it? If it’s white, there’s a good chance that you smell vanilla, toasted nuts, and perhaps a few subtle notes of candied coconut or caramel. If it’s red, roasted coffee, chocolate, tobacco; sometimes leather or smoked meat. These aromas all derive from wooden barrels and have become dominant characteristics in a majority of wines these days. That’s because the average consumer has come to equate ‘oak’ with ‘quality.’ Why, might you ask? Many people tend to think, “the older, the better” when it comes to purchasing wine. It’s true for the most part; any wine worth your while is barrel-aged. Why is that? With proper use, barrels impart certain properties to the wine. They also allow for a slow, regular oxygenation of the wine, which activates numerous chemical reactions, rounding out flavors, fixing color, and softening tannins.
Understand that barrels are commonly used to age wine rather than transport it. This has dramatically influenced the way in which we taste and associate various varietals. The American palate, for instance, has become accustomed to what some may consider over-oaked wines. Chardonnay, for example, is often primarily described as either oaked or unoaked. The fruit itself becomes secondary. What you have at this point, is a ‘market.’ Give people what they want. If wineries know they can sell it based on consumers expectations, they will make it. Plain and simple, if people are demanding 100% new oak, winemakers take notice. Roger Capitain once told us that oak and wine is like salt and soup. Too little and the soup’s not right; too much and it’s ruined. That’s a lifetime of winemaking experience culled into an adage. You don’t have to be the greatest winemaker in the world to understand the basics. Wood should support wine, never dominate it. The wine itself has to be able to support wood, or it will be overpowered. Even with wines that merit oak aging, only a percentage of each harvest should go into new oak.
Every vintage is different. So it’s difficult, if not impossible, to be systematic. In fact, this is where we can separate the ‘good’ from the ‘great’ in winemaking. Once producers have their vineyards under control, they can harvest healthy grapes and master fermentations. The best of them will tell you their biggest challenge is preserving the freshness of the fruit. This is the ‘finesse’ that we are always talking about when tasting wine. We feel as though the phrase 'judicious use of oak' is high praise for winemakers who get the balance right. Balance is a quest that, even for the most gifted winemakers, lasts a lifetime.