Learning about Oak Barrels with Winemaker – Kevin Luther.

WVW Barrel 7.jpg

It’s almost 1pm and I am at Wise Villa Winery. With my one strap bag and phone ready for notes, I start to walk through the production area of the winery. As I walked to the back room/office, I found myself walking through water, grape silage, as well as trying to avoid equipment. I’m there on a sunny October day, right in the middle of harvest!

After being offered a glass of wine straight from one of the barrels, Kevin was more than happy to share his knowledge with me regarding oak barrels, but I ended up learning so much more. Here is the summed-up version of what we discussed:

MN: So, Kevin! Would you agree that American and French oak are the two most popular types of oak barrels?

Yes. Also, red oak is not used. All oak for wine is white oak. American white oak is Quercus Alba, French white oak is Quercus Petrea, for the most part.

MN: How do you decide which kind of oak barrel to use for particular wines?

American oak barrels express more coconut and vanilla flavors, and so are best to boost the sweet fruit flavors in both white and red wines. French oak adds flavors and aromas of baking spices into red wines, while imparting a subtle, less dominating influence of oak – this lets the fruit express itself more compared to American oak.

MN: Why is chardonnay so often aged in oak while other white wines are aged in stainless steel?

The character of chardonnay is a blank slate. Less about the terroir and more about the flavors of the winemaking. Stainless steel vessels trap the aromatics that exist is wine with more of a fruity / floral character to them. If these wines were aged in oak barrels, the aromatics might be lost during aging, and the subtle flavors might be overpowered by use of new oak.

MN: Is there a cost difference between American and French oak barrels?

American oak barrels cost around $600 each, while French oak barrels are typically $1,000.

 MN: Do you literally get barrels sent to the winery directly from France?

American oak barrels are typically made in the U.S., and French Oak barrels in France, but sometimes French oak wood is shipped to the U.S. in bulk and made into barrels – locally – by French coopers to make international shipping more reasonable.

MN: What is a cooper?

Essentially, they are barrel makers. Everything that a cooper does is referred to as cooperage – this includes operating barrel-making machinery, the construction of the barrels themselves, and the toasting of the barrels.

MN: What’s the purpose of toasting a barrel?

Much of the flavor comes from the raw flavors of the un-toasted wood, and on the higher side of the toast range you also get more toasted flavors similar to coffee and chocolate and toast flavors. Toasts range from un-toasted to light-to-medium, medium-to-heavy, to charred.

MN: How many times can oak barrels be used?

A wine barrel can be used for decades, but most commonly are used for 3-5 years. Most of the flavor of the oak barrel comes in the first year, a little in the second year, and by year 3-4 the barrel is mostly a neutral (flavorless) storage vessel.

MN: I’ve seen oak barrels on rollers. What’s the purpose of this and is it necessary?

Oak Barrels are sometimes put on rollers specifically to spin to stir up yeast lees (as opposed to batonnage, which is a traditional way to stir wine with a rod). After fermentation, the yeast falls to the bottom. The flavor of the yeast is thereby mixed into the wine imparting more of a pastry flavor. In this technique, you typically stir once a week for the first couple of months then once a month.