By John ~ March 12th, 2010.
When we talk about “toast” as it relates to wine, it’s not what you serve alongside bacon and eggs. “Toast” is the result of heating the inside of oak staves for wine barrels. The degree of charring is the amount of “toast,” from light to heavy.
Most white wines see no oak at all, Chardonnay being a notable exception. Most red wines get some treatment in oak, though not because oak is an inexpensive storage medium; in fact, it is not. Oak barrels are very expensive as compared to stainless tanks, but oak gives off desirable aromatic qualities, and its porous nature allows slow oxidation that softens the wine.
French oak has traditionally been the gold standard for oak barrels, but its cost, more than twice as expensive as American oak, has had a growing minority of winemakers looking for suitable alternatives. The tighter grained French oak produce subtle aromas and add more tannins. The wider grained American oak adds bigger, bolder vanilla and, some say, coconut aromas. Toasting the inside of the barrel adds further aromas, from the natural wood flavor of light toast to the caramel-like flavors of medium toast to the charcoal-like flavors of heavy toast.
Obviously, the first year a new barrel is used, it provides the most aromatics to a wine. However, this impact fades with each year of use. By its fifth year of use, a barrel is considered virtually neutral, not imparting any unique flavors to the wine. Many winemakers not only use some combination of French and American oak, but new and older barrels to get just the right combination of wood flavors that they want in their wine. In order to further reduce costs, some winemakers today are flavoring wine produced entirely in stainless tanks by soaking it with oak chips, shavings, or barrel staves without the expense or effort of using wine barrels at all.
Just like you selecting the right bread to toast with breakfast, it’s important for the winemaker to select the right barrel and toast it just right.
Filed under: General Wine Information