Most wine, especially reds, are product of two plants: grapevines and trees, usually oaks.
It is a natural marriage—grapevines are forest dwellers in their natural environment.
While juice always is most important element in wine, the wooden barrel provides an environment for wine to evolve and ripen and sets up future growth in the bottle, particularly by providing tannins different from tannins supplied by grape skins and seeds.
Wood also provides delicious nuances, such as flavors of vanilla, spice, and smoke. When you read such descriptions, you know wine spent time in wooden barrels. In quality wines, these subtle tastes integrate elegantly into the juice. In lesser wines, oak can be garish and brazen. It’s the difference between Audrey Hepburn and Pamela Lee.
Wood source makes a difference. Old world oak grown in cooler climates has tighter grain, thus more subtle impact. American oak, grown in warmer climates, is more open-grained, exposing more wine to oak characteristics.
“New oak” means a barrel never used before. “Old oak” means barrel has aged wine before. Expect big oak in wine “aged in new American oak,” significantly less if “aged in old French oak.”
While a good barrel is important, it never can be the star. A wonderful barrel will not make a wonderful wine, but a wonderful wine requires a wonderful barrel.
Trivia: standard 59-gallon Bordeaux barrel holds about 25 cases of wine (300 bottles). Most oak trees used for barrels are 60-80 years old. Average oak tree produces about 60 barrels.
• Clos du Bois Briarcrest Cabernet Sauvignon. 100% Alexander Valley Cab; big, lush fruit, supple tannins, oak. $43
• Mettler Cabernet Sauvignon. High scoring Lodi Cab. Deep color, cherries, rich and chewy; oak. $25
• Rombauer Chardonnay. Pear, pineapple, tropical fruit blends with creamy toasted vanilla (thanks to the oak). $39
• Groth Chardonnay. Fruity and complex; long, cool fermentation, old and new oak add layers of toastiness and creaminess. $25
• Summers Chardonnay Le Nude. Unoaked, fermented and aged sur lie (on the lees [dead yeast cells]) in stainless steel to add complex, intense character. $18