Oak is the cilantro of winemaking: it’s divisive. Delicious and paramount to wine’s longevity for some; overused and a mask of terroir for others. Few winemaking topics create as much dissent as “proper” oak use. Opinions aside, not all oak is created equal, and a new type of barrel is emerging in wine, and it’s pretty awesome.
Enter the multi-oak barrel, a vessel that combines of the world’s three main types of oak: American, French, and Hungarian. Normally, winemakers use a single type of oak or several separate barrels to add layers of complexity to finished wines, but multi-oak barrels take a step out of the process, and let winemakers age their wares in a whole new way.
At first glance, these fusion barrels don’t look any different than their classic counterparts, but a closer look reveals differences in the size and shape of the wood grains, indicating different breeds of oak. By combining oak types in a single barrel–interspersing varieties in the staves, heads, or both–winemakers create a flavor cocktail for their wines without any blending.
Like herbs from the same family, all oak shares some characteristics, but the aromas, flavors, and tannins contributed by each breed can vary widely. Some, like French oak, have a tight grain that imparts fine tannins and the baking spice aromas often associated with oaky wines. American oak, on the other hand, has a looser grain that contributes big, bold tannins and tropical, herbal aromas. Differences in the grain also allow wines to integrate their unique attributes–flavors as varied as coconut, dill, vanilla, cinnamon, and nuts–into wines at different speeds. With fusion vessels, each barrel is like an herb sachet tossed into soup, adding multilayered complexity instead of the singular flavors of rosemary or sage, for example.
Generally, oak barrels act like a porous shield, protecting wine from bugs and bacteria while letting in tiny amounts of oxygen. Small amounts of air gradually and gently coax new flavors, aromas, and tannins from the wood into harsh and fruity new wines. Over the course of months or years, this coaxing transforms the flavors and aromas of wine from fruity and tannic to elegant, adding notes of spice and earthiness along the way.
“A winemaker’s oak selection is like a chef’s spice collection,” explains winemaker Amy Ludovissy of Viansa Sonoma. “Each winemaker prefers some ‘spices’ over others. Some varieties work better with bigger, bolder American oak tannins, like Zinfandel, while others are best complemented by other oak.”
Traditionally, winemakers who wanted a blend of oak–like those in Rioja and Ribera del Duero–would simply age some of their wines in American oak others in French oak. Once aged, the wines would be blended in precise proportions. Now, mixed barrels can evenly and simultaneously impart a specific ratio of qualities from each type of oak. Bodegas Beronia, for example, uses barrels with American oak staves and French oak heads to get the perfect ratio of bold flavors for its Tempranillo-based wines.
Not only does this make the eventual blending process more simple by removing the math, it lets winemakers experiment more easily. “You only need one barrel to achieve the impact rather than using three,” says Ludovissy, “And the rate of extraction is achieved at exactly the same rate.”
Ludovissy’s barrels combine all three oak types, a combination she thinks is excellent for Zinfandel.”I think the blend of French, American, and Hungarian works very well with Zinfandel in particular because the tannins from the oak complement the natural tannins in the fruit,” she says.
Together, the oaks in Ludovissy’s fusion barrels contribute a Christmas spice quality that adds incredible complexity to wines, especially Viansa’s 2015 Moon Mountain Zinfandel in which red fruit, herbs, and smoke combine with these spices in a delicious and complex wine.
While most coopers aren’t mass-producing multi-oak barrels (yet) it’s easy to taste the complexity these vessels add, and it’s delicious. Adding more versatility to winemaking is a win-win, since it lets winemakers experiment more. That means more and different wines, and more tasty vino for all drinkers. Who knows? Maybe the cilantro of wine will soon be more like basil — adored by all.
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