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Wood and Wine

That wine is too woody....This wine has just a hint of oak....What does this mean to the wine drinker?

The art of wine making has two distinct parts, fermentation and maturation. The first is when grape juice turns into wine. Maturation (sometimes called finishing) follows fermentation. This is when young wine begins to calm down and smooth out its rough edges. Think of it as those wild teenage years that smooth out into adulthood. When done right this time is when wine comes into its own, forming a distinct character. Just as with people, this maturation process varies from wine to wine. It can take a few months to years (see Barolo).

Oak barrels are a traditional storage container for the fermentation or maturation process. The barrels impart their own unique flavor to the wine. That is why some wines are described as being "oaky." Some people like it (me) others dislike it (my husband).

One argument for finishing wine in oak barrels is that the oak creates a more intense nose and length on the palate. This is where flavors described as "vanilla" or "coconut" come from. There are French oak and American oak barrels. French oak is more expensive, but often preferred because it imparts a subtler flavor. This is one reason aged barrels are preferrable to new. The oak flavor is softer. New oak barrels are the choice by some in Bordeaux. American oak is often used for wines such as Cabernet Sauvignon.

"Toasty" flavors come from the amount of "toast" each barrel has. This "toast" is the charring that is done to the inside of the barrel. The amount of charring, the age of the barrel, and the size of the barrel will effect the flavor of the wine.

Be aware that in some cases, essences are added to wines to impart an oaky flavor. This is understandable for the home vintner. It can be less than honest for industrial wineries to present "oaky" wines that have never touched a wood barrel. When purchasing a wine you may want to dertermine the type of barrel used, the age, etc., before purchasing an expensive bottle of wine. Knowledge about your wine can be empowering.

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