On June 28, I attended a tasting for winemakers sponsored by Bouchard Cooperages, representing French tonnelleries (cooperages) Cadus, Damy, Vicard and Canadell. This tasting demonstrated subtleties in flavor and style lent by oak selected, seasoned and “toasted” according to the techniques of individual coopers seeking a particular “je ne sais quoi” to differentiate their barrels from others.
Today’s barrel makers are more like chefs than carpenters: barrels are used increasingly for finely nuanced flavors. What consumers want from a barrel has changed; it used to be “bang for the buck” with big woody flavors but now, less is often more when it comes to oak influence in wine.
Wooden barrels probably originated with Celts in the Balkans around 350 B.C., becoming common wine transport vessels in Roman Gaul by the third century A.D. Made using techniques adapted from boat building, with wooden staves heated, bent and bound with hoops, these were more useful (but more expensive) than fragile clay amphorae. Large barrels were used for fermentation; small barrels holding 30 to 60 gallons became standard for transport and also for aging fine wines that deserve the extra quality derived from time in wood.
Almost all wine barrels used today are crafted from oak. European oak is tighter-grained, and thus less aggressively extractive, than American oak. American barrels cost about $350 vs. their French counterparts costing $750 to $1,000. Per bottle, that’s about $1 vs. $3.
The rough inner surface of oak catalyzes the harshest tannins in wine to complex and mellow, while the wood, seasoned and charred, adds flavors like vanilla, nuts, dust, coffee, chocolate, smoke, lead pencil, bourbon, burnt toast, cedar, coconut, butterscotch, pie spice or turpentine.
The use of wood to flavor chardonnay in particular offers an example of how the public’s expectations have been formed and changed in the past 20 years. The signature white grape of Burgundy, chardonnay was cultivated by medieval monks and elevated to elite status there. Because oak barrels could be made easily in this region and used for both fermentation and transport, all white Burgundies were, for centuries, made in oak and hence bore distinctive oak flavors.
In the 1970s, when California winemaker Robert Mondavi wanted to make premium French-style wines that were different from the ubiquitous redwood-fermented California jug wines, he introduced French oak to his winemaking arsenal. From then on, French oak began to define premium American wines.
Pretty soon the French tonnelleries, who made a few thousand barrels a year from trees planted by Louis XIV and Napoleon, began offering designer barrels. As new wineries all over the world clamored for these barrels, coopers began also sourcing wood from Hungary and Russia, refining their techniques as barrel prices soared. Even Spanish winemakers who for centuries preferred American oak have adapted to suit critics’ taste for European oak, deliberately cultivating big Parker scores.
Since the 1990s, some critics and consumers have rebelled against overblown oak elements commonly used to obscure high alcohol levels and unfermentable sugars in warm-climate chardonnays. Many former chardonnay drinkers have switched to unoaked wines like pinot grigio or sought out unoaked chardonnay.
But oak still plays a key role in the finest wines, both red and white. Used judiciously, it lends complexity, character and finesse, balancing fruit, acidity and alcohol seamlessly. This was evident in the Bouchard tasting. A Bavard Puligny-Montrachet 2007 Premier Cru, aged in Cadus “medium toast” barrels, had great dimension, with oaky vanilla aromas just hovering over the fruit. A Fichet Puligny-Montrachet 2008 Premier Cru aged in Damy “long toast” wood from Allier smelled more distinctly of toast and caramel, though that classy Burgundian chardonnay still appeared with vibrant acidity. Two red wines (Ch. Gruaud Larose 2008 from Bordeaux and Domaine Courbis 2009 from the Rhone) in similar barrels from Cadus and Damy revealed consistency in the two coopers’ styles, with Cadus being more subtle — and less spicy — than the Damy.
A tasting of Villard 2009 Viognier from Condrieu showed how well this fruit benefited from the spiciness of Vicard oak from Nevers, but the Chateau Giscours 2000 Margaux, also in Vicard barrels, revealed a drawback to barrel aging: it suffered from brettanomyces infection and smelled like Band-Aids.
These were expensive wines. For vin ordinaire, many vintners now use oak “chips,” infused like tea bags. These add flavor, but not finesse. Ultimately, the added cost of fine barrels has to be justified by the price of the wine.
Ms. Hargrave was a founder of the Long Island wine industry in 1973. She is currently a freelance writer and consultant.