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Chris Johnston
November 3, 2014 | Chris Johnston

Wine Aromas & Oak Barrels

In my post on Demystifying Wine Aromas, I mentioned that smell – not taste – is the human sense that defines the overall flavor of wine.  And I spoke about the Middle Ridge Signature Aroma Table – a smell-able display of aroma “reference standards” that are typically used to train wine competition judges and wine writers.  I prepare the Aroma Table every year to help guests at our Annual Barrel Tasting learn to identify aromas in wine and develop an understanding of what they enjoy.  The table contains over 40 aroma samples – everything from black cherries, nutmeg, and tobacco in red wine to pears, lime and grapefruit in white wines.

The Signature Aroma Table has been a huge hit year after year.  Guests enjoyed it so much – especially when they had one of those “Aha!” moments – that I wanted to do more to enhance their learning experience.  And that’s why I expanded the table to include oak aroma samples.

The first addition to the table was five samples of wine aged in French oak.  Each sample represents a different toasting level on the inside of the barrel – light, light+, medium, medium+, and heavy.  (Winemakers get to choose the toasting level when buying barrels.)

It was so much fun to see the looks of surprise when guests smelled the samples and realized how much barrel toasting impacts the aroma of wine.  These are definitely good students, so I couldn’t stop there.  The following year, I added a set of American oak samples.  Now guests could experience not only the impact of toasting levels but the differences in the type of oak used as well.  Wow, this was fun!

So what is it that folks experience?  Here’s some interesting info on what happens to wine aromas the longer a barrel is toasted:

  • Wine aged in a lightly toasted barrel retains some of the fresh wood aromas of the barrel.
  • As a barrel is toasted longer, the fresh wood aromas diminish and sweeter, sugary aromas from the wood such as butter, caramel and vanilla increase.
  • At higher toast levels, these aromas are replaced with darker, earthier aromas such as spice, smoke, tobacco, and coffee.

And what about the differences between French and American oak?

FRENCH OAK is a much tighter grain than American oak.  As such, the aromas imparted by a French oak barrel are more subtle, which allows those of the grape varietal to be more noticeable.  In addition to a perceived aromatic sweetness, common descriptors for wines aged in French oak are fruity, cinnamon and allspice along with chocolate, smoky and coffee.

AMERICAN OAK, with its wider grain, tends to impart stronger, more obvious and sweeter aromas.  Common descriptors for American oak are vanilla, honey, butterscotch, coconut, sweet spices and dill.  Aromas of pine, resin, and cedar are also associated with American oak.

From the winemaker’s perspective, a wine barrel is never “just” a barrel but a powerful took in the winemaker’s arsenal.  I actually think of them as my spice boxes.  I use them to season wine in much the same way that I use spices to season food when I’m cooking.

Winemakers usually have a strong preference for the kind of oak and the toasting level used to make their barrels.  I certainly do!  I use French oak – and a medium or medium+ toast – exclusively because I like the way it works in subtle ways to enhance the natural fruit aromas of the wine.  In my opinion, American oak tends to overpower the beauty of the fruit.  But, like I said, that’s my preference.  You have yours, too, although you may not know how to describe it or what to look for when you’re shopping for wine.  And that’s why I love sharing the experience of our Signature Aroma Table.  If you live in Southern California or can make arrangements to be in the area, I hope you’ll join us for our Annual Barrel Tasting and develop a better understanding of what you enjoy in wine … one sniff at a time!


Time Posted: Nov 3, 2014 at 7:03 PM Permalink to Wine Aromas & Oak Barrels Permalink
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