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In last week’s column, we explored the elements of winemaking that influence the perception and the reality of our interaction with wine. I described four “influencers” affecting a bottle of wine: grape varietal and terroir, yeast, aging vessel and the hand of the winemaker.
Three of these factors were presented and explained. The last, aging, was promised for this week’s column.
Aging is one of the factors directly under the control of the winemaker. He or she has a particular preference for a style of wine and utilizes all available resources to achieve that unique style.
The first decision a winemaker makes is whether to age a wine at all. Aging provides time for a wine to continue its life passage from young and fresh; to middle age and complex; to older; and its final demise, losing its color and complexity.
How so? The components in grapes that influence a winemaker’s decision to age include polyphenols, which reside in the skins and seeds of red grapes. A primary phenol in red grapes is tannin, which influences the stability and structure – and astringency – of wine. Higher levels of tannins can provide longer age-ability for wines.
For certain wines, a winemaker may seek minimal aging. Certain grapes produce wines that are best enjoyed when young, soon after fermentation is completed. For many red wines, the high level of tannins affords a winemaker the opportunity to select various methods to influence the aroma and tannic profile of a wine.
Once the decision is made that sufficient tannins are present to warrant aging, the next decisions are the type of vessel and length of aging.
Over the centuries, the method and vessels for aging have evolved from clay containers (amphora) to wood barrels, stainless steel tanks and glass bottles. Today, aging takes place predominantly in wood barrels, simply because they offer a winemaker great latitude in the final aromas and complexity of a wine. It is the wine barrel aging that can add unique aromas to a wine’s profile.
Of course, many winemakers choose not to influence their wines with wood barrel aging. In those instances, stainless steel containers are preferred for white or red wine – antiseptic, sterile and allowing the elemental essence to dominate.
Aging wine in wood barrels requires a number of factors to be considered:
- The tree. Oak is the dominant wood for aging; its tight grain and longevity prevent leakage and allow for use over multiple vintages. However, differing varieties of oak affect barreled wine in unique ways. French oak has its own tannins and adds structure to the wine. American oak imparts a natural essence of butterscotch and vanilla. Hungarian oak traditionally has lower tannins.
- Toasting. Yes, the insides of new barrels are frequently “torched” to add a toasty aroma to a wine. Winemakers order their barrels with their preferred level of burning specified.
- Length of time. The longer in barrel, the more time for tannins to round out their astringency and power. The high-end Italian and French wines may age in barrel for four years or more.
- Size. The surface area of the barrel has a distinct influence on its contents. Today’s typical barrel is 59 gallons; larger barrels are still in use in certain countries, up to several hundred gallons in capacity. The surface area allows wines to breathe through the barrel pores; a larger surface area creates a more oak-neutral environment.
- Cost. A new oak barrel averages $1,200. A number of winemakers insist on a single use, after which it may be sold to a less particular winemaker. Barrels have been known to be re-used multiple times; each successive use creates a more neutral environment.
Grapes are a basic agricultural commodity, but the influences of man, interacting with nature, create a palette for an individualized and unique end-product. It is this diversity that benefits each of us as we consider the vast choices available to us.
Nick Antonaccio is a 45-year Pleasantville resident. For over 25 years, he has conducted wine tastings and lectures. Nick is a member and program director of the Wine Media Guild of wine journalists. He also offers personalized wine tastings and wine travel services. Nick’s credo: continuous experimenting results in instinctive behavior. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @sharingwine.
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