A Sommelier's wine secrets
There’s no doubt in my mind that wine fermented in oak barrels has a very different and distinct flavor than wine fermented in stainless steel. The phenolic material from an oak barrel ultimately imparts a variety of flavors depending on the growing region of the trees, tightness or width of the wood grain and toasting levels (light, medium or strong) of the barrels. The flavors that the wine barrels impart into the wine are technically called organoleptic characteristics.
The French oak used in making barrels comes from three particular growing regions in northern, eastern and central France. In general, French oak possesses organoleptic characteristics of butter, smoke and clove. Each region imparts additional, unique flavors in the wine. For example, oak from the north-central region possesses flavors of spice, while the south-central regions impart vanilla. Eastern France produces oak barrels that taste greenish or like spicy pears or apples. Milky, cinnamon spices are found in oak from the central regions of France. American Oak imparts organoleptic flavors of dill, cucumber, coconut, baking spices and vanilla.
If the winemaker wants, he or she can request additional oak related flavors via toasting level such as almonds, tobacco, aniseed, bacon, coffee, pepper, walnut and chocolate. So the next time you have wine that has flavors of creamy vanilla and peppery bacon you’ll know it was from the barrel and not the grapes or terroir.
I recently participated in a barrel tasting and noted something that was quite interesting. All of the barrels contained wine made from Pinot noir grapes grown at the same vineyard site, cared for in the same manner and produced by the same winemaker, yet they had strikingly different characteristics. The only difference was the type of Pinot noir vine that produced the grapes. Pinot noir has a tendency to mutate easily, and over the years, subtle deviations from the original have demonstrated qualities that winemakers wanted to capture. The specific mutations have been duplicated by grafting, resulting in vines that are identical to each other (clones), yet subtly different from other Pinot noir vines, just the same as a violin, cello and viola are related and similar, yet not exactly the same. Winemakers and vineyards use these differences to their advantage and select specific clones to suit their tastes and environment. So when you get a bottle of Pinot noir, the wine may be produced from one single clone or a combination of several clones depending on the intention of the winemaker.