Question from Paul: Someone told me that if wine smells like vanilla it comes from the barrel. Is that right? It doesn’t make sense to me.
Reply: Hi, Paul. Thanks for writing! Yup, it’s likely that it comes from the barrel although we can never be absolutely certain. Vanilla is a plant and grapes are plants so there’s always the chance that they share some flavor compounds but vanilla is very high up on the hit parade of barrel derived characteristics – There’s vanillin in oak.
The barrel is second, only, to the fresh grapes when it comes to flavor impact on the wine. It has three important impacts:
1. The slow aeration that occurs matures the wine away from simple, primary fruit characteristics adding complexity as it softens the wine and marries fractious components into something more cohesive.
2. Evaporation concentrates the wine a bit, adding to its weight.
3. If the barrel is relatively new, it imparts lots for different aromas and flavors such as vanilla, coconut, baking spices (especially nutmeg) smoke, coffee… the list goes on and on. Barrels are like tea bags in that they give up their flavor with age. Some winemakers prefer older barrels that don’t impart flavor to the wine.
The most important factors are:
- The species
- Tightness of the grain (influences how quickly flavor and tannins are imparted)
- Location of the forest
- How long it’s seasoned (air dried)
- The toasting level – how hot the fire and how long it stays on the fire.
- The size! The larger the container, the slower the oxidation and the less wine-to-wood contact. That can offer an advantage when aging white wine in particular.
- Whether or not its been used before.
That’s a lot of variables! Let’s take on some of the most important ones. Continue reading