A Weekend in Walla Walla

South Walla Walla
A beautiful vineyard view in South Walla Walla.

I have recently returned from a trip to Washington state that included as its centerpiece a weekend in the Walla Walla AVA. Along the way, I also had time for a brief stop in Red Mountain AVA as well as a chance to visit some Seattle area wineries that source their grapes from Red Mountain and Walla Walla. I’ll get into details on wines in future posts, but I thought I would start with some generalities about what I found.

In the past, Washington was known primarily for white wine, particularly Riesling. In 1985, for example, more Riesling was harvested than Chardonnay, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon combined. Today all four grapes are grown in roughly equal amounts and the overall production in the state, which is 13 times larger than it was in 1985, is split pretty much 50-50 between red and white varieties. Red Mountain and Walla Walla have played a big part in this change, and while white wine grapes are grown in both AVAs, make no mistake about it– this is red wine country.

Wheat country
Walla Walla is also wheat country.

Walla Walla and Red Mountain are in the rain shadow of the Cascasde Mountains, making for a semi-arid climate with annual rainfall amounts of between 5 and 20 inches. What makes farming possible in the region is irrigation. One advantage of this is that it gives grape growers the ability to precisely control the amount of water the vines get, letting them direct the growth and development of the grapes. Water control is such a big issue that some vineyards place neutron detectors deeply into the soil to accurately measure the amount of water it contains.

Soils in eastern Washington are usually fine sand on top of basalt and have good drainage. This, coupled with the cold winters the regions gets, makes an environment that is inhospitable to phylloxera and the majority of Washington grapes are planted on their own rootstock. As one winemaker I spoke with put it, “grapes grown on natural rootstock are not necessarily better or worse, but they are different.”

To my taste buds, the best grape in Washington right now is Merlot. (I’m not alone in this.) Many believe that this is related to the use of irrigation which keeps grapes from getting too plump and diluted at harvest time. Others credit the natural rootstock which encourages smaller, more concentrated berries. Whatever the reason, it was frequently the Merlots (or blends with a generous portion of Merlot) that came out on top for me in the tasting rooms (and I tend to be picky about Merlots). Sangiovese also seems to do quite well in the region, and there are some excellent Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Syrah wines.

Most wineries are currently selling 2013 for reds and 2014 for whites. The 2013 growing season was much warmer than 2012, and it shows in the wines. In general, the 2013s are fruitier and more approachable on release than the previous vintage. I believe that the 2012s will reach greater heights, but they need a bit longer to do it. My advice is to drink the 2013s before the 2012s.

2014 was another warm year. The handful of white wines I had from this vintage were generally drinking well. Barrel samples of the 2014 reds indicate that these will also be fuller and more complex than the 2013s but not as deep as the 2012s. I’m looking forward to seeing how these develop.

Goldilocks and the New Wines


Serving temperature can have a profound impact on both the taste and mouthfeel of wine, so part of my getting ready to taste wines with customers is to figure out what temperature I want to serve them at. A consideration of the grape varieties and the wine style usually provides a good starting point, but there can be surprises.

Sometimes many surprises.

Recently, I received several proprietary blends to evaluate from a new producer than I am working with. Because I didn’t know exactly what was in each wine I had to make some guesses about serving temperature and I, er, um, guessed wrong. Multiple times. As I was tasting through the sample bottles, I really started to feel a bit like Goldilocks… “This wine is too warm! This wine is too cold!”

There are many ways that temperature affects how we perceive wine. A cooler wine gives off less aroma than a warmer one. Because smell is a big part of taste, this changes both what goes on in your nose and what happens in your mouth. Make a wine too cold, below 40°F or so, and it won’t have much of any flavor at all (which, it should be noted, can sometimes be an advantage with less delicious wines). At the other extreme, as wine gets too warm (above 70° to 75°F), the alcohol starts to take over, masking the taste and giving an unpleasant burning sensation.

A lower serving temperature can give a wine more body and, on warm days, make a wine more refreshing. It also reduces the tongue’s perception of sweetness, which is why ice cream tastes great when cold but overly sweet when melted. On the other hand, acidity, bitterness, and astringency (tannin) are all more noticeable in cool wine than warm.

Commonly given advice is to “serve white wines chilled and red wines at room temperature.” This leads people wrong in a number of ways. All too often “chilled” becomes “straight from the refrigerator”, a temperature that is almost always too cold. Similarly, “room temperature”, especially on a summer day or when the room is the kitchen, is likely to be too warm. Even when it isn’t, many red wines will benefit from being chilled slightly below what most of us would consider a comfortable room.

As with many other things about wine, the right serving temperature depends on which bottle you have in front of you. The chart below gives approximate temperature ranges for serving red, white, and rosé wines. Richer, fuller wines will typically be best in the warmer part of the range. Lighter or sweeter wines towards the cooler part (with the combination of light and sweet served coldest). Sparkling wines also are served at lower temperatures as cold helps keep the carbon dioxide in solution, preserving the bubbles and keeping the wines from becoming too frothy.

Temperature Chart
Typical serving temperature ranges for wine.

When chilling wine, allow about 30 minutes of time in the refrigerator for every five degrees cooler you want to make it. If you’re in a hurry, use an ice bath– then you only need to allow about 2 minutes per five degrees. Wine warms up quickly in the glass, and it is usually a good idea to have the bottle just a little cooler than “perfect” to allow for this. If you need to warm up an entire bottle, plan for about 15 minutes per five degrees in a 70 degree room. (In a warmer room it will take less time.)

Returning to our narrative, the fairy tale solution of opening new bottles until finding one that was just right was unavailable to me, so I was just going to have to work with what I already had. The wines that seemed too thin or sweet I chilled a bit more. The ones that seemed odorless or flavorless I let warm up a bit. And when I went back to re-taste them all, things were much better.

The moral of the story is listen to your taste buds. (Well, that and… the bears should be truly thankful Goldilocks didn’t find the key to the wine cellar!) By taking advantage of the ways the temperature affects the perception of wine you can make it more enjoyable. Besides, your taste buds work differently than everyone else’s– maybe a little experimentation will help you discover why your friends are raving about a wine you think is only so-so. After all, the three bears prove that even in a fairy tale not everyone likes things the same way.

Red Wines From Puglia
Not Just Bulk Juice Anymore

Vines trained in the alberello (“little tree”) method. (Photo from Produttori Vini Manduria.)

Puglia, the boot heel of Italy, hasn’t always had the best reputation for wine-making. For many years, it was known primarily as a source of bulk wines for blending or making vermouth. However, driven by economic forces, this situation is changing and now more than half of the region’s wine is produced under Italian wine quality laws.

The traditional training system used in Puglia is alberello, where vines are grown as low free-standing bushes rather than in neat lines strung out along wires. This style of growing is naturally low yielding and well-suited to the climate in Puglia, but also labor intensive as most of the work needs to be done by hand rather than using tractors. It’s a combination that makes profits difficult when wine prices are low and, in recent years, many bulk producers in the region have opted to accept EU payments to “grub up” their vines and leave the business. Those remaining are increasingly focused on putting wine into bottles instead of tank trucks.

Nearly three-fourths of the quality wine production in Puglia is based on just two grapes: Primitivo and Negroamaro (also written as Negro Amaro). Their dominant position likely comes from the one thing they have in common– an affinity for warm, dry weather.

Negroamaro is a dark, late ripening grape that has been cultivated in Puglia for at least 1,500 years and many people believe even longer, perhaps as long as 2,700 years. One possible origin for its name can be translated as “blackest of the black”, and wines made from it typically exhibit black fruit flavors with savory spice and herb notes. Historically, Negroamaro has been used as a blending grape to add body to other wines (often in other parts of Italy, or even other countries), but it can also make a structured, age-worthy wine by itself. A native Italian variety, nearly all of the world’s production of this grape is grown in Puglia.

Primitivo, on the other hand, is an early ripening red grape that was brought to Italy from Croatia only in the last few hundred years. Its name means something along the lines of “first one”, and it is typically harvested starting in August. (Primitivo is also one of the few grapes that can have a second harvest in the same year, typically 20 to 30 days after the first.)  As discussed in Zinfandel’s Italian Cousin, Primitivo is a close relative of the much more famous Zinfandel, and it exhibits the same flavors in wine- red berries and jam with a touch of pepper.

A third grape worth noting is Malvasia Nera, an aromatic dark-skinned variety that is descended from Negroamaro and Malvasia Bianca Lunga. Like its lighter-skinned relatives, Malvasia Nera is known for enticing aromas and flavors when added into a wine blend. There are 11 classified reds based on a combination of Negroamaro and Malvasia Nera in Puglia, the most famous of which is Salice Salentino.

Examples of what to expect from wines made with these grapes are provided by three products I represent from Consorzio Produttori Vini of Manduria, Italy. Detailed descriptions are provided below.

Consorzio Produttori Vini Memoria Primitivo di Manduria 2013: This unoaked wine preserves the light, bright berry flavors and hint of sweetness that are the hallmarks of Primitivo/Zinfandel grapes. Earth and pepper aromas mingle with scents of blueberries. A medium dark ruby color promises a lot of flavor, and the Memoria delivers with just enough structuring tannins to give the wine focus. An easy-drinking, pleasant wine that is great for cookouts.

Consorzio Produttori Vini Neama Salento Negroamaro 2014: Dark ruby with purple highlights, this wine has savory aromas of black cherry and herbs with flavors of black cherry and black raspberry, a touch of clove, and moderate tannins. Well suited to grilled red meats and vegetables, it matches up nicely with onion and garlic flavors and can also work with savory spicy foods. For something out of the ordinary, try grilled tuna steaks with grilled peppers and grilled eggplant.

Consorzio Produttori Vini Salice Salentino Riserva 2011: This is a versatile wine that can pair with a range of foods from the sublime earthiness of truffles to the simple pleasures of a meat lovers pizza. It has a moderately dark ruby color with enticing aromas of raspberry and plum augmented by hints of allspice and vanilla that come from its time in French oak. Delicious flavors of cooked cherry and raspberry combine with nice structuring tannins and notes of nutmeg and allspice– a complex mingling with a long, pleasant finish.  A local food match for Salice Salentino is Penne alla puttanesca (pasta with anchovies, onion, olives, tomato and capers). Foods with extended cooking times such as stews, roasts, and smoked meats are also good candidates to make the most of the layers of flavor in this wine.

Zinfandel’s Italian Cousin

Memorial Day is fast approaching, and with it, in New England at least, the official opening of barbecue season. Oh, sure, most of us have fired up the grill once or twice already, perhaps even a few times, but this is the weekend that our summer cookouts really get rolling.

Barbecue season is a time for friends and family; a time for the exciting flavors of smoke and spice; and a time for big wines like Zinfandel or… its Italian cousin, Primitivo.

The similarity between Zinfandel and Primitivo came to the attention of UC Davis professor Austin Goheen during a trip to Italy in 1967.  Not long thereafter, ampelographers, experts who classify of grapevines by comparing the shape and color of the leaves and berries, declared the two varieties to be the same. In the early 1990s, the connection was proved beyond a doubt when DNA fingerprinting established that American Zinfandel and Italian Primitivo are in fact clones.*

Recently, I had a chance to perform a less scientific comparison involving two 2013 California Zinfandels and a 2013 Primitivo. The three wines were:

Bedrock “Old Vine” Zinfandel 2013 (Sonoma)
Michael David Winery Earthquake Zinfandel 2013 (Lodi)
Consorzio Produttori Vini Lirica Primitivo di Manduria 2013 (Manduria)

One sip was all it took to recognize the family resemblance. All three glasses were full of ripe berry flavors supported by spice and pepper notes. However, there were also interesting stylistic differences.

The Bedrock Zinfandel has to be considered a bit of a ringer. Containing nearly 23% of grapes other than Zinfandel (Carignane, Mourvedre, Grenache, Petite Sirah, Abouriou, Aubun, and assorted mixed white varieties), it possesses the kind of complexity that only a well-done blend can. Those other grapes may also be a factor in holding the alcohol content down to relatively modest (for Zinfandel) 14.5% while still delivering big time flavor. Bright cherry and raspberry aromas are accented by savory herb notes. Take a sip and you get all that plus blueberry and pepper flavors. This is a wine that will pair well with spicy foods that contain a hint of sweetness such as spicy BBQ pulled pork or coconut curry grilled chicken.

The second California entry, the Earthquake Zinfandel, starts out tight and herby– not nearly as welcoming as the other wines. However, give it a little time to unwind, about 30 minutes or so, and the wine reveals a rich ripe fruit core and solid structure framed by intriguing herb and spice accents. At 15.5% ABV, this is a powerful wine that can stand up to just about anything- I’d like to try it with BBQ beef ribs or chili rubbed tenderloin tips.

The Lirica Primitivo is a bit more restrained than its California cousins. A nose of spice, plum, and pepper gives way to flavors of pepper and raspberry with a quick touch of mineral on the finish. Lightly oaked (three months in French oak), this wine has a subtle complexity with moderate structuring tannins and nice length. The alcohol level, 14.0% ABV, is also a bit more restrained than the other wines. The laid back character of the Lirica makes it an ideal complement for things like grilled Italian sausages, spice rubbed pork, and grilled bacon wrapped jalapeno shrimp.

While each wine has individual nuances, they all have the signature berry flavors, spice notes, and jamminess that are a great match for everything from burgers and sausages to spicy BBQ sauces. So next time you want to invite Zinfandel over for a barbecue, don’t forget to invite the Italian cousin, Primitivo. You’ll be glad you did.

*John E. Bowers, Elizabeth B. Bandman, Carole P. Meredith, DNA Fingerprint Characterization of Some Wine Grape Cultivars, American Journal of Enology and Viticulture, January 1993 

Note: My business represents the wines of Consorzio Produttori Vini.

They’re More Like Guidelines

CaptainJackIf you have read the About page on Oenophily, you know that I have some issues with wine ratings. Briefly stated, I think that they are both the beginning and end of too many people’s buying decision process. Wine just isn’t that simple and to find the most satisfying ones it’s necessary to look a little more deeply into the bottle.

I’m not the only one who sees this. In A Sauvignon Blanc tasting that raises questions about point scores, Steve Heimoff writes about the shortcomings of wine ratings from the reviewer perspective. During a blind tasting, he finds a wine he really likes. Though the wine achieves a good score, it is still in the bottom half of those reviewed. This result leads him to wonder: does the 100-point scale truly measure what is important in wine?

I like Steve’s post a lot. (If you haven’t already, go read it!) To my thinking, it highlights both the good side and the bad side of ratings. They serve a useful function, providing information about wine quality and similarity to a certain flavor profile. On the other hand, that perfect profile is highly specific and it won’t always match our personal tastes or the food we are eating.

Whether it’s wine ratings, rules about serving temperatures (e.g. reds at room temperature, whites chilled), or pairings (always serve white wines with fish), people are always trying to simplify wine. These things are useful, but they don’t fit every situation. After all, the final arbiter is what’s going on in your mouth. Or, as Elizabeth Swann might say, “Hang the ratings, and hang the rules. They’re more like guidelines anyway.”

Fear of Wine

In writing last week about two new wine gadgets currently under development, I ended up wondering: who do these really help? Though I had some doubts about the usefulness of these products, there was no question in my mind about who their creators thought they were for. Consider, for example, this excerpt from one website:

“The wine aisle is long and scary; the beer and liquor aisles aren’t. Wine is stuck in a 750mL glass bottle that makes its contents inaccessible unless you commit to drinking (or dumping out) the whole thing. It feels like you need to take a class to understand what temperature your wine should be served at or what food it should be paired with.”

Clearly, these people are not buying beer in the same places I am- my local store carries well over 400 different brews! However, dubious shopping comparisons aside, the intended target for these words is plain to see: people who are afraid of wine. Those of us in the industry may like to ponder the demographics behind why two companies believe this is a good time to launch a product targeted at people with oenophobia, but a better question for all of us might be where does the fear come from in the first place?

OK, sure, wine is complicated if you want to get into all the details. However, the same can be said about Game of Thrones, and I don’t see anyone using that as a reason to miss Sunday’s season opener. Of course not. Understanding all that complexity may be fun, but it isn’t really required to enjoy either the wine or the show (and, frankly, it probably matters a whole lot more for the latter).

So… maybe it’s not the complexity, or the wine, that people are afraid of. Perhaps it is their wine loving friends. After all, we can get pretty carried away talking about all those details and nuances, quickly leaving a newcomer, if you will, racked off in the lees.

I was recently guilty of this myself. My brother asked for some advice on wine pairing and I gave him a response that was, um, overly complete. Having found sibling advice unhelpful, he turned to the staff at his preferred store and received a recommendation that was trendy, but one that also changed his original food plan. Because I got bogged down in the details and didn’t help him with what he really wanted to know, I lost an opportunity to introduce him to one of my favorite flavor pairings.

Just as a scriptwriter doesn’t try to put everything about the show into a single episode, we need to remember that we can’t cram all our wine knowledge into the tasting of a single bottle. And while our friends can go binge watch 5 seasons of Game of Thrones to catch up with us concerning the show, the same approach doesn’t work with wine. Not at all. If we can just keep these things in mind as we share our passion, perhaps we can conquer Fear of Wine and recruit new allies in our adventures.

Perhaps Not Such a Great Gift Idea

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas. Oh, no, not to those of us enjoying the first warm days of spring and looking forward to summer. But for a consumer products company that needs to get something manufactured, boxed, shipped, and in the hands of customers by December 24th, Santa is at the door. Now.

Which explains why pre-order opportunities for pricey new gadgets are showing up on crowd-funding websites. This year, oenophiles (and their friends) are being enticed by not one, but two products promising better wine through technology: Kuvée: The Smart Wine Bottle that Keeps Wine Fresh, and Somm by SYNEK (pronounced “cynic”), A Wine Dispenser That Learns Your Palate.

Of the two, Kuvée has the far more elegant design. It is a wine bottle size device (slightly taller) with a built-in color touchscreen and wifi. The wine comes in 750ml aluminum bottles that are inserted into the bottom of the unit. Kuvée has partnered with several well-known wineries to deliver branded wines in its proprietary format, and they advertise that they will have 48 wines available when the product launches.

The aluminum bottles have RFID chips so when you insert one into Kuvée, it knows what wine it has and can display the wine label on the screen. Touch the screen and you can get more information about the wine. You can also provide feedback and order wines through the touch screen. To pour, just lift and tip Kuvée like you would a wine bottle. There’s a valve system inside that lets the wine out while preventing air from getting it.

Somm is a counter-top appliance with built-in pumping, refrigeration, and aeration systems. On the front, it has a pouring handle, a spout, and a door that provides access for inserting the 2.25 liter wine container called a “Sylo”. The wines have private label names as SYNEK purchases in bulk and fills the Sylos themselves. Somm’s Kickstarter page announces “100’s of wines available” though the small print says they will be launching with just 30.

Like the Kuvée, Somm recognizes which wine has been inserted it. One of the system’s more interesting innovations is that it uses this information to adjust the temperature and aeration settings to match the wine. Instead of a touchscreen, SYNEK provides an app for your smartphone or tablet for interacting with Somm. The apps will display information about the wine in the unit, allow you to rate it, and help you order more wine.

Though at first glance, these appear to be rather different products, both are being sold on the same value propositions:

1) to keep your wine fresh for 30 days after opening
2) to learn your preferences and help you select new wines

I have no doubts they can deliver. The technology to keep oxygen out of wine and extend its life after opening has been around for a quite a while; after all, it’s used inside box wines. (And before complaining about “that swill”, be aware that the Wine Spectator has rated some box wines as high as 89 points). Recommending new wines based on what you’ve liked in the past is equally straight forward.

The big limitation here is the wines themselves. Even if both systems eventually do have hundreds of wines, that’s just a small fraction of the thousands of wines available worldwide. It’s not enough diversity to satisfy the true wine lover or to educate the new aficionado.

They come in proprietary containers, so you can’t just pop into the store to buy some more. You have to order the wines for these things in advance. To support hundreds of wines, each device will need thousands upon thousands of customers. Active customers. If they don’t achieve a large enough user base, there is a chance that each will be stuck with its small starter set of wines. Even worse, perhaps no wine if there aren’t enough sales to support the special containers. A risk that is increased by the fact that there are competing systems.

Finally, while I’m sure either system can deliver a decent glass of wine, I have serious doubts about ever getting a great glass of wine. Too many of those require aging in a container that permits slow aeration, something the anti-oxidation designs of Somm and Kuvée are specifically designed to prevent. (Nor do I see premier providers rushing to embrace these units.)

I think there are really interesting things going on with each of these systems. If they worked with any bottle instead of the proprietary containers available from each supplier (not a simple request, I understand), they would be a lot more exciting. As it is, I see a shortage of utility and a lot of limitations.

So, in the end, we are left with the question: Who do Somm or Kuvée really help? If your primary goal is to be able to have just a glass or two of wine a day without the rest going bad, there are better choices: either find one of the good box wines or invest in one of the wine preservation products that will work with any wine. On the other hand, if the goal is to learn more about wine, you will quickly run up against the limits of either Somm’s or Kuvée’s wine selection. Moreover, with the Somm you won’t even know who produced the wine, a further impediment to learning.

Bottom line? If you’re interested enough in one of these for yourself to plop down $200 (the current going pre-buy price for either) now for delivery in the fall, go for it. Hundreds of other people have. But if you are thinking of getting one as a gift… er… maybe your friend would prefer the equivalent value in wine?

Wood or Steel- A Matter of Style

Champagne uncorking photographed with a high speed air-gap flash
Photo by Niels Noordhoek, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons (click for details)

As discussed in my recently completed Wine and Woods series of posts, the decisions made in aging wine can have a profound effect on its aroma, taste, and feel. In most cases, the winemaker’s job is to use the aging process to deliver the best possible wine from the vintage in the barrels. With champagne the goal is a little different: steer the development of the wines to allow the brand a consistent sensory profile, called house style, year after year.

A recent article on Decanter.com, A debate from Champagne’s sensual parliament, explores the roles that wood and steel aging play in defining and realizing house style. Author Andrew Jefford also includes tasting notes from six champagnes, illustrating how the different choices manifest in the glass.

Wine and Wood (Part 4)

As fabulous as wooden barrels are for aging wines, they have one tremendous drawback: expense. They are costly to buy and difficult to clean. The wood will contribute aromas and flavors to wine for only one or two aging cycles, necessitating frequent replacement for many styles of wine. Taken altogether, the expenses of using wood barrels can add dollars per bottle to the cost of producing wine.

There is a barrel material that has none of these problems– stainless steel. Stainless steel containers are cheaper to produce than wood, easier to clean, require far less maintenance, and last virtually forever. They are also completely non-reactive and non-porous, adding nothing to the flavor or mouthfeel of a wine. For all these reasons and more, stainless steel is widely used for fermentation, even for wines that will be aged in wood barrels. The problem comes after that….

Left to their own devices, wines matures in stainless steel tend to have bright fruit flavors and a crisp mouthfeel. This is a style that some prefer, especially for lighter wines, but it also lacks the depth and complexity that wine lovers have come to expect for so many kinds of wine.1 To be able to take advantage of the cost savings offered by aging in stainless steel, winemakers have had to find ways to reproduce the sensory characteristics derived from wood barrels in their production processes.

One of these techniques, called micro-oxygenation, is the controlled release of small amounts of oxygen into wine through a ceramic disk placed at the bottom of the barrel or tank. The ceramic breaks up the oxygen into microscopic bubbles that are quickly absorbed by the wine.

Originally developed in southwestern France during the early 1990s to speed the maturation of wines based on the highly tannic Tannat grape, micro-oxygenation has been adapted for a wide variety of vinifcation uses, including helping wines maturing in stainless steel to develop in a manner similar to wooden barrels. For this purpose, “small amounts” means somewhere around 1 milliliter of oxygen per liter of wine per month! A detailed discussion on micro-oxygenation can be found it Duane Alexander Blaauw’s dissertation Micro-Oxygenation in Contemporary Winemaking on the Cape Wine Academy website.

With micro-oxidation imitating the slow infusion of air through wood barrel walls, the other part of the equation is incorporating wood derived aromas, flavors, and mouthfeel enhancements into wine being aged in stainless steel. This is commonly done by putting pieces of toasted wood in with the wine.

There are several advantages to this approach. While the pieces of wood interact with the wine in much the same way as barrel staves, they are much cheaper to produce as they don’t require precise shaping or bending and don’t have to be watertight. Putting the wood into the wine means that both sides (as well as the edges) are in contact with the wine, so that 100% of the wood surface area is used (as opposed to about 40% in a barrel). Lastly, the problem of cleaning the wood is avoided because the inserts are discarded after use.

The method that most closely mimics barrel aging is mounting long planks of toasted wood inside the stainless steel container. Lower-cost options include the use of shorter boards, wood cubes or chips, wood shavings, and even wood powder or sawdust. Smaller pieces tend to contribute aromas and flavors faster than larger ones, a fact that winemakers can use to reduce the production time of wine, albeit at the expense of the advantages that come from longer aging.

When combined with micro-oxygenation, the results of the plank technique have generally been good and it is widely considered a viable alternative for producing high-quality mid-priced wines. Similarly, wood cubes and wood chips can work well in younger wines. A 2011 study2 showed little difference in consumer preference for young wines aged for 6 months in oak barrels versus 6 months in stainless with oak chips added for the last month. (In fact, the oak chip wines scored higher than the barrel aged ones, though the difference was not statistically significant.) Wood shavings and wood powders are generally considered less effective than the larger pieces of wood but do impart some wood character at a low cost and with minimal contact time.

One final method for adding wood flavors and aromas to wine is the use of wood extract. Made by soaking oak chips in high-proof alcohol, extract tends to be harsh but can provide an instant infusion of wood-like character into a wine. (A common use for extract is to fine tune the flavor of inexpensive wines after dosing with wood powder and filtering.) It’s quick and cheap, and that’s probably all that can be said for it.

The general consensus in the industry is that when wood character is desired, the aging of wine in wooden barrels yields the best wines. However, most will also agree that when used to emulate (and perhaps gently accelerate) traditional methods, the techniques discussed above are capable of producing good wines at lower cost. However, as the focus shifts from emulation at a reduced cost to imitation at the lowest possible cost, the results are predictably of lower quality.

1 For those who have been following this series, it should come as no surprise that this difference in flavors has resulted in yet another style of wine. After aging part of the wine with wood and part in stainless steel, the two are blended back together. The resulting wine can have a mixture of the bright fruit flavors coming from the stainless portion and the rich mellow notes from the wood.

2 Pérez-Magariño, S., Ortega-Heras, M., and González-Sanjosé, M.L. 2011. Wine consumption habits and consumer preferences between wines aged in barrels or with chips. Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture 91: 943-949.

Wine and Wood (Part 3)

Spices for saleWood barrel aging has been called the winemakers spice rack. In the same ways that herbs and spices make foods more delicious, the aromas and flavors derived from wood can enhance wine. An earlier post discussed the effects of the different types of wood used in wine barrels, but that’s just the beginning. There are many other factors that affect the final result. For example, toast.

Toasting is something that occurs as part of the barrel-making process. When it is time to bend the barrel staves into their final shape, they are heated. In addition to making the wood more pliable, this also causes their inner side to brown, or toast. As the heat penetrates the staves, it triggers chemical changes that mellow the wood, reducing harsh tannins, diminishing woody flavors, and promoting the development of pleasing sensory characteristics.

By controlling the amount of heat and the duration of warming, barrel makers adjust the style and level of toast, achieving a wide variety of aromas and flavors including butterscotch, vanilla, caramel, chocolate, roasted coffee, and smoke. Toast is one of the specifications included when ordering a barrel, and it is an important part of shaping the future wine. (For more information on barrel toast, I recommend a visit to the website of the Seguin Moreau Napa Cooperage, where there is a detailed discussion of the topic.)

Having selected the flavors available through wood type and the toast level, the next decision is how much spice to add. To minimize the effect of the wood, very large neutral barrels (ones that have been used many times for aging similar wines) are best.* When large flavor contributions are desired, newly constructed barrels in small sizes are the way to go. A balance between these two extremes is obtained by employing a mixture of new, used, and neutral barrels. The actual mix selected by the winemaker is often disclosed on wine labels or data sheets with phrases like “100% oak aged, 30% in new barrels”.

Winemakers can also control the effects of aging through the length of time the wine spends in the barrel. This is an especially useful approach, as the progress of the wine can be monitored via barrel samples and changes applied as necessary. For example, if the wine has enough wood influence but would still benefit from more interaction with air, it can be racked (transferred) to neutral barrels. When sampling indicates that enough time has been spent in barrels, then it will be bottled.

One of the interesting things about barrel aging is that the oxidation and evaporation effects resulting from the porosity of the barrel walls accumulate at a fairly constant rate, but what the wine draws from the wood itself decreases over time. This means that more aromas and flavors are extracted from the wood in the first few months of aging than in any similar period thereafter. To increase the effect of the wood on the wine, winemakers can use two, or even three, sequential agings in new wood barrels, a process described as 200%, or 300%, new barrel aging.

(Another technique for increasing wood influence, especially tannin extraction, is fermentation in barrels. Most winemakers believe that it is only suitable for use with new oak barrels and more powerful grapes like California Cabernet Sauvignon. Barrel fermentation is a labor intensive process that is only used in small batch wines.)

Finally, the influence of different types of wood can be incorporated into a wine by using a mixture of barrels. For example, to get the flavors of American oak with the mouthfeel of French oak, the winemaker can age part of the wine in each type of wood. This is another choice frequently disclosed on labels or data sheets with phrases such as, “100% oak aged, 80% in French oak, 20% in American oak.” Even when it is not disclosed, clues will be present. For example, the combination mentioned above would likely yield moderate vanilla, coconut, or cream flavors with a lush satiny mouthfeel.

A variation on this approach is to use barrels made of one type of wood or toast level with barrel heads of another. The heads of the barrel are the flat ends and they represent about 30% of the interior surface area, enough to add distinct flavor and texture notes to a wine. One example of this is called “toasted heads”, where the heads have a higher level of toast than the barrel itself, allowing the winemaker to incorporate both structural tannins and toasty flavors. Another example is the use of acacia wood heads with oak barrels, a combination that tends to tone down oak derived flavors while preserving the structural tannins and gradual oxidation effects of barrel aging.

The artistry of the winemaker is choosing among all these techniques to highlight the best features of the wine without trampling its character. As spices can transform plain food into an exquisite meal, wood barrel aging can create wines of amazing depth and complexity from simple fermented grape juice. And it’s all because barrels were better for moving wine than amphorae.

*In recent decades, barrels made of stainless steel have also been used to mature wine without adding flavors, though the result is not identical. Wines aged in stainless tend to be brighter and more fruit forward than those matured in large neutral wood barrels. They are also less likely to age well, and in most cases should be consumed while young.  There are, of course, techniques for influencing how wines develop in stainless steel and new stylistic options for winemakers resulting from its use. These (spoiler alert) are a topic for part 4 of this series.