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Bruliam Wine Blog

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Please Don’t Touch My Bunghole

Posted by Kerith , June 21, 2010

The girl who bikes next to me in spin class graduated from the same local high school as I.  We finished maybe five years apart (plus or minus 15 years).  When I get amped up over the extended Cure / Depeche Mode remixes that carry us over 17 minute “hill” excursions, her eyes glaze over.  After all, she was a zygote back in 1983.  So I was surprised to learn this bitty baby was a fledgling cork-dork.  In fact our spin instructor (who shares my musical sensibilities, not hers) gifted the wine baby a bottle of Toasted Head chardonnay to fete her completing her first marathon.  So after class, I asked wine baby if she knew what a “toasted head” was.  She thought it might have something to do with a bear or fire, since their label sports a cartoon of a fire breathing teddy.  When I explained it was a reference to the charred end-pieces of oak wine casks, she seemed genuinely interested, for the first 3 minutes.  Before long, I was stretching alone and talking to myself, like those folks with the stealth hands-free phone devices.  Luckily, I can finish my conversation with myself right here.

Almost all red wine and many white wines experience oak contact en route from fermentation to bottle.  Usually this is in the form of oak barrel aging, but cheaper alternatives like oak chips are also available.  Untangling the mysteries of wood barrels is a thorny process.  Fundamentally, oak can be classified as used or new, French or not.  But within these overarching categories, there are innumerable details that may affect the outcome of the finished wine.  So let’s begin where it all starts, with a tree.

The most highly pedigreed oak hails from France.  Premium French oak derives from specially designated forests in special parts of France (Alliers! Nevers!).  The trees are sawed in a particular way, and the planks are planed and dried.  Only then do highly trained coopers (i.e. barrel makers) use heat to bend individual wood staves into picturesque arcs.  The arching staves are placed within the metal hoops that stabilize the barrels.  There is no glue, no nails, and the barrels are water tight.  Besides using heat to bend wood, there is another byproduct of direct flame heating, a residual char affectionately called “toast.”  Toast comes in different levels, ascending from low to medium to high.  Each cooper does it a little bit differently, and you order barrels by cooper and toast level, custom wood for your premium juice.  It’s like designer jeans, with minute permutations changing the fit just enough that ladies care, and the men are confused.  Trained tasters can totally taste the difference between wine aged in a Francois Frere barrel vs. Seguin Moreau vs. Remond.  You could too if you had all 3 wines lined up in a row. 

Some scientists believe these differences have more to do with barrel age and duration of oak contact than with the origin of the barrels themselves.  So I have some more explaining to do.  The char lining the barrels contains unique chemical compounds that are neither intrinsic to grapes nor generated by fermentation alone.  In other words, crispy Cajun barrels give the wine somethin’ extra you can’t get anywhere else.  When you put wine into a barrel, these compounds seep into the juice and change the texture and flavor and aroma, generally in a favorable manner.  New barrels have more to offer, since the pool of special sauce is finite.  After a year of use, fewer chemicals remain to diffuse into next season’s juice.  After three cycles of use, the barrels are deemed “neutral” and have nothing more to offer than cheap storage, presuming you’ve fully paid off your barrel bills from two seasons ago.  Furthermore, the longer the wine is in contact with the barrel, the more stuff seeps in.  The highest rate of diffusion occurs during the first months of barrel aging.  So one could correctly argue that wine aged for 6 months in brand new French oak has more oaky tones than wine that sits for two years in neutral oak.  But bear in mind, there can be too much of a good thing.  Wine aged in 100% new oak for too long will taste like a Home Depot 2X4.  And some folks turn their noses up at barrel aging altogether.  The tag line “100% stainless steel fermentation and aging” has become a trendy moniker.

Oak aging serves a number of useful functions.  First and foremost, it accelerates the aging process.  Hard edged tannins are softened, vegetal and bitter notes are diminished, and varietal character is enhanced.  The wine is more nuanced, layered and complex.  How can this be, you ask?  Drum roll…and now for the biochemistry (quick and painless, I promise).  The biochemical players comprising the toast can be roughly divided into 3 categories.  (1) Byproducts of polysaccharide pyrolysis.  This means that fire breaks down the sugars in woody cellulose.  This yields stuff like furanic aldehydes, which include guys like eugenol and vinyl-4-guiacol.  Sound familiar?  These are the same players in smoke taint, but to a much lesser degree. (2)  Oaky lactones which tend towards oaky and coconut flavors (3) Decomposition of wood ligins yielding almond and vanilla flavors.  OK, done!  Please, don’t unsubscribe…join the legions of Bruliam fans who tolerate biochemistry once/quarter.

As soon as we finalize the contracts on our grapes for 2010 harvest, we’ll be ordering our custom oak barrels from France.  We plan to keep you posted.

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