Why are oak barrels toasted?
If you’ve been reading my column you know that I am big fan of dry red wines. I especially enjoy a red wine that has been sitting in an oak barrel for a while. The oak gives the wine so much more body than if the wine was sitting in a stainless steel tank. A lot of our guests at the winery have asked me though “why are oak barrels toasted”? Well that made me think… I’ve always taken toasted oak barrels for granted and never considered why they were toasted. So after much research (and of course wine tasting), here are my findings…
Oak barrels were originally toasted to make the wood more pliable so the staves (or strips of wood used for the barrel) could be bent into shape. Also, early wine makers learned that untoasted barrels tended to absorb the wine into the wood and left a lot of air in barrel which made many batches of wine turn to vinegar. So as wine markers experimented with the wood, they also did samplings of their wine throughout the process and found that toasted barrels released more flavors in the wine giving the wine more body.
Think of the process this way… if you take a glass of apple cider and add a cinnamon stick to the wine, you will get a hint of cinnamon. But if you warmed or toasted the outside of the cinnamon stick, the cinnamon stick releases more flavors, you may even get a hint of vanilla or nutmeg which is characteristic of toasting a wood item.
When we get a new oak barrel we usually fill it with water first to make sure there are no leaks. Once we are comfortable with how it is holding we will add a wine for 2-3 weeks and sample it. Because the barrel is new, it tends to bring out the tannins in the wine quicker than an older barrel. So the longer we let the wine sit in the barrel, the more body the wine will have. The best part about using a new barrel is we will continue to taste the wine each week until we feel there is enough body in the wine before bottling it. It’s a tough job, but somebody needs to test it!