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Wood techniques bypass the barrel

Wood BarrelsLast week a group of students and I addressed the topic of “The Impact of Wood Usage in Wine Storage and Maturation.”

You, as they, would probably also have been yawning as the first PowerPoint slide was projected onto the screen. (Did I mention it was late afternoon on a Friday?) But the class delved into the discussion.

We like to think of wood aged wine as spending its days and nights nestled in dark cellars slowly evolving inside expensive oak barrels, eventually revealing its complex and nuanced character. That scenario is most likely not the case if the wine you are buying costs $12 or less. This is not to say that you will not find wood aromas and tastes in lower-priced wines; it only means you are experiencing a “wood usage option.”

The use of alternative techniques originated in Australia, a leader in revolutionary winemaking techniques. Australians tend to take a pragmatic approach to their craft – for instance, the use of mechanical harvesters in the place of hand harvesting to efficiently grow and harvest more grapes. The simple solution: Put a tractor in the field rather than a picking crew.

Want to soften, add texture and stabilize the tannin in wines? Take a shortcut; throw a few oak chips into the vat. As with Australia’s many other down-to-earth solutions, this method not only costs less on the winery’s end; the savings trickle down to the consumer by offering the flavor and characteristics of wood at a fraction of the price.

These techniques for imparting wood influence without the expensive barrels include the use of oak staves lowered into the vat or large bags filled with oak chips dipped into the vat, much like a tea bag. A final alternative, which few winemakers use (and is illegal in most countries), is pouring a liquid essence with oak flavor into the vat.

Is this modernized technique a benefit to the wine consumer or another process making the romance of winemaking a thing of the past? There is no easy answer. I love rich, buttery $50 chardonnays that have fermented in expensive oak barrels, but certainly enjoy the simple, clean $10 bottles using alternative methods for my wines.

Perhaps this is a question where the exploration is more fun than finding the answer.

THE VALUES

  • 2011 Penfolds Rawson Retreat Chardonnay, Australia (about $12 retail)
  • 2011 Yalumba Y SeriesChardonnay, Australia (about $12 retail)

THE SPLURGES

  • 2009 Rombauer Carneros Chardonnay, California (about $49 retail)
  • 2009 Cambria Katherine’s Vineyard Chardonnay, California (about $32 retail)

Key to picking wine is knowing likes

If you think of how each person has such different likes and dislikes in food, it’s not surprising that we enjoy different wines. Some like the zip of a crisp white wine, while others prefer the smooth softness of low-tannin red wine.

The key to finding new wines you like is a better understanding of what you enjoy about a specific wine and being able to discern exactly what you dislike. Being able to articulate your preferences will enable you to become a smarter buyer in the retail shop and offer you more confident choices while dining out.

ACIDITY

If you enjoy the sharp, puckery sensation of biting into a Granny Smith apple, most likely you enjoy light-bodied wines with vibrant acidity. The most piercing style is New Zealand sauvignon blanc. For less zest, consider sauvignon blanc from California or France’s Loire Valley.

THE VALUE

  • 2010 Cupcake Sauvignon Blanc, California (about $12 retail)

THE SPLURGE

  • 2010 Kim Crawford Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, New Zealand (about $19 retail)

SMOOTH AND SOFT

There is a reason merlots and chardonnays are the bestselling crowd-pleasing wines on the market. A wine being smooth, neither tart nor tannic, is one of the most sought-after qualities for many wine drinkers, from novice oenophiles to seasoned connoisseurs. This style of wine is usually medium-bodied, with less tannic bite for reds and less oak for whites.

THE VALUE

  • 2010 Lindemans Cawarra Merlot, Australia (about $10 retail)

THE SPLURGE

  • 2009 Gloria Ferrer Merlot, California (about $22 retail)

SWEETNESS

If you enjoy sweet wines you’ll want to be able to distinguish between the styles. (Asking a sommelier for the best sweet wine by the glass could end in a $40 Sauternes versus a $4 white zinfandel.) A wine becomes sweet from added sugar or a natural viticulture process. A wine obtaining its sweetness in the winery involves fermenting a wine to dryness and adding a sweet reserve juice, grape must or grape concentrate back into the wine. When Mother Nature has her hand in the process it results in a luscious sweet wine with a higher price tag.

THE VALUE

  • 2009 Hogue Cellars Late Harvest Riesling, California (about $15 retail)

THE SPLURGE

  • NV Jackson Triggs Riesling Ice Wine, Canada (about $55 retail, 375 ml)

OAK

It’s not always easy to know whether oak has been used in a wine style, but scents of vanilla, toast or grilled nuts are often reliable clues. If you enjoy a full-bodied wine, most likely you will like a wine that has been in contact with oak during winemaking or aging. The most familiar is Chardonnay, with the soft, rich, buttery and creamy style so many consider a favorite.

THE VALUE

  • 2009 Kendall Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay, California (about $15 retail)

THE SPLURGE

  • 2009 Silver Oak Napa Valley Chardonnay, California (about $24 retail)

FLORAL

Aromatic qualities of floral are more common in white wines than red. Certain grapes offering layers of this pronounced sensory explosion for your nose are Gewurztraminer, viognier, Riesling and torrontes.

THE VALUE

  • 2010 Bonterra Vineyards Viognier, California (about $19 retail)

THE SPLURGE

  • 2010 Calera Mt. Harlan Viognier, California (about $37 retail)

Hint of oak not always the barrel

Many wine lovers imagine that wines embellished with the characteristics of wood are nestled in dark, musty cellars, slowly maturing inside expensive oak barrels.

This image, while nostalgic, is most likely a reality only to those who cross over into the more expensive price range. However, because of winemaking innovations, it’s possible to find wood characteristics in lower-priced wines.

Australia is a leader in revolutionary winemaking techniques, and Australians tend to take a pragmatic approach to their craft. For instance, using mechanical harvesters instead of hand-picking grapes allows vineyards to grow and harvest more grapes. Or if you want to soften, add texture and stabilize the tannin in wines, take a shortcut and simply throw a few oak chips into the vat. Many of Australia’s thrifty, down-to-earth solutions trickle down to the consumer by offering the flavor and characteristics of wood at a fraction of the price.

Other options that bring the influence of wood to the wine is the use of oak staves dipped into the vat or large bags filled with oak chips that steep in the vat much like a tea bag. Another alternative, which few winemakers use or admit to using, is pouring a liquid with oak flavor into the vat.

So is this modernized technique a benefit to the wine consumer or another process making the romance of winemaking a thing of the past? Well, I love buttery, $30 Chardonnays that have fermented in expensive wood barrels, but I certainly enjoy the simple yet clean $7 bottles that just had a few oak “tea bags” dipped in the vat.

THE VALUE

  • 2006 Penfolds Rawson Retreat Chardonnay, Australia (about $8, retail)
  • 2006 Toasted Head Chardonnay, California (about $14, retail)
  • 2007 Jacob’s Creek Chardonnay, Australia (about $9, retail)
  • 2007 Yalumba Y Series Chardonnay, Australia (about $12, retail)

THE SPLURGE

  • 2005 Gary Farrell Chardonnay, California (about $44, retail)
  • 2005 Cambria Katherine’s Chardonnay, California (about $32, retail)
  • 2006 Ferrari Carano Chardonnay, California (about $22, retail)
  • 2005 Kistler Carneros Chardonnay, California (about $52, retail)