What’s in a Barrel?

barrelsWhat’s in a barrel? Besides wine, of course. But seriously, I get asked all the time what the difference is between types of barrels, and how to describe barrel flavors. In my opinion, barrels only seem mystifying until you know the vocabulary, so here is a quick glossary of barrel words:

French oak: Oak barrels are commonly referred to by their place of origin; French oak barrels come (obviously) from France. In France, there are several forests that provide the oak for barrels, but probably only a handful of people could taste the difference between those barrels. The experienced taster might pick up on the difference between French and American oak, but possibly not even that. I’ve heard that French oak gives a softer flavor to the wine than American oak, and I’ve noticed that a lot of local winemakers use French oak over American.

American oak: American oak (a different type of oak than French) usually has bolder flavors. I’ve heard coconut  as a descriptor for American oak barrel flavor, but I’ve never remarked on a coconut flavor in wine; maybe someone with a more experienced palate than mine would notice this. Most American oak barrels come from the East coast, although I had a couple of tasters tell me last week that Oregon barrels are getting more popular.

Hungarian oak: To be really honest, I don’t know much about Hungarian barrels, except that it’s the third most popular option for oak barrels. Anyone with more Hungarian oak info, please share with us!

New oak: New oak is the term for barrels that have never been used before; barrels impart the most flavor the first time they’re used, so wine aged in new oak barrels are really where you’ll taste any barrel flavors.

Neutral oak: Neutral oak is the term for barrels that have been used before and don’t really give as much noticeable barrel flavor to the wine. Barrels are only used a few times before being discarded.

Barrel fermentation vs Barrel aging: Winemakers can actually ferment the wine in the barrel, which bring out different flavors from the yeast’s reaction to the barrel. More often, the wine is fermented in a tank and then transferred to a barrel while it ages, giving it all the nice barrel flavors. These days, it’s mostly red wines and Chardonnays that are barrel aged, although I’ll sometimes see other whites aged in neutral oak.

Barrel Program: This refers to the winemaker’s barrel decisions for a specific wine. He or she might decide to put 70% of the wine in new French oak and 30% of the wine in neutral French oak for 16 months before blending it all together. Or 60% American oak and 40% French oak for 10 months. The barrel program is a combination of all the factors; type of barrel, new or neutral barrels, and how long the wine sits in barrel before bottling.

Barrel Flavors: Someone asked me the other week how to identify flavors that come from the barrel instead of the grape. After putting our heads together, a coworker and I came to the conclusion that pretty much all the flavors that aren’t fruit or vegetable are probably from the barrel. Anytime you taste vanilla, chocolate, coffee, coconut, almond, cloves, cinnamon, or smoke, it probably comes from the barrel rather than the grapes themselves.

So there you have it; a quick barrel study. Now make some flashcards and go out and try some wines aged in Hungarian oak! 


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