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On March 24th, Söntés and Sturino Trotta Cellars are partnering to offer an exclusive, seven-course meal paired with seven fantastic wines.

As a feature of the event, attendees will be given the unique opportunity to learn about the lifetime of wine by sampling unaged wine from the Sturino Trotta barrels and comparing it to aged, bottled wine. Staff from the winery will be on hand to discuss everything from terroir to tasting notes to the fermentation process. For more information on the event, including a full menu, click here

For now, slake your curiosity about wine barrels!

So, what really is the difference in wine barrels? Do barrels really do something?  Who really cares? Well, actually yes to the first two, and anyone who drinks wine should care. Barrels have a long and storied history in the wine world, but really began to take hold in French wine making. But just what does a barrel do for wine? Read on to find out! You’ll discover that a barrel’s purpose is manyfold. 

Let’s start with the obvious. For one, a barrel is a large vessel to hold wine, and it can easily be stored on its side and stacked. It’s easy to roll, so that takes care of logistics and moving. But it is more, oh so much more…

Barrels work to soften the grip of fresh wine by allowing air to slowly and subtly seep in to calm the tannins of the juice, skins, stems, and sometimes seeds. The barrel is, for all intents and purposes, nature’s way of controlled oxidization.

Additionally, wooden barrels will impart some extra depth of flavor from the wood that has been toasted. Yep, toasted—as in held over a large flame and rotated by the cooper who made the barrel until the correct toast is achieved. Wait, toast? You betcha. Just like we all have a particular level of toastiness we prefer at our morning breakfast, winemakers have the same proclivity, but just with their barrels. Winemakers choose from barrels with either a low, medium, medium-high, high, or high-high toast. (High-high, by the way, is how Toasted Head got its name; the caps of the barrels are called heads, and while most of the time the heads are not toasted… well, you can probably guess by now that that’s the signature style of Toasted Head.)

Now what does that toast do? Well, actually, the toast works to caramelize the natural sugars in the wood, and by the process of diffusion (or would it be osmosis? Sorry Mr. Fynboh, I’ve forgotten some of my high school chemistry lessons!) the caramelized sugars work their way into the barrel of wine, imparting their magic elixir of flavor.

What flavors? Well I’m glad you asked! All of tasting notes you read—vanilla, marshmallow, caramel, crème brûlée, smoky, toasty, campfire-like—that’s what toasted barrels help to impart to the wine. Not only that, but the wood in the barrel adds another layer of structure and tannin. And by that I mean wood tannin, not grape tannin, which helps to give the wine a bit more backbone and some aging length.

Now this is where it gets tricky. Barrels have a shelf life of about 3–5 years before all of their flavor is gone, at which point they’re called neutral barrels. The barrel can now go one of three ways with the winemaker:

  1. He or she can continue use the barrel for aging wines, but not to impart any flavor from the wood—and that’s okay.  It lets the fruit do all of the work and is an economically feasible solution, considering each barrel can run from $600 to $1500.
  2. The wine maker can choose to clean and dry the barrel, then have the inside scraped down and then re-toasted. Depending on the wine, this may be a good option as well, but it will most likely not have the same depth of flavor as the new and newly toasted barrel.
  3. Lastly, the barrel can go to the barrel boneyard to be turned into flower pots, cheeseboards, or (like at Sontes) interesting objects out of which to make tables and makeshift bars.

One of the most interesting and hotly debated areas of barrel making is the source of the wood, and that contest usually boils down to the France or the USA. More and more, though, Hungary is becoming a major player in this field. French oak is thought to have a tighter grain due to colder winters, and thus has less chance of letting the wine oxidize too fast. It also is thought to toast better. Others think that the French coopers have been doing it longer, so they get the benefit of perceived experience. Hence French oak barrels run about $1000–$1500 per barrel.

Now, American oak used to have a bad rap, and it’s still not as expensive as French oak barrels, ringing in around $600–$800 per barrel. But that is before we knew so much about wine, back when we were using the same types of oak that are used for our delicious whiskeys and bourbons. Well, those forests were in warmer climates than Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan, resulting in more porous wood. Nowadays Americans are using more and more oak from our Northernmost climates, which yields a tighter grain and is more like its French cousin than the Southern oak. American coopers are also becoming more proficient and experienced, recognizing that there is a difference between a whiskey and a wine barrel. (And that means that the dill pickle taste that was ubiquitous in many wines made in American barrels is now almost non-existent.)

So, at the end of day, when you are wondering why a wine tastes like a great toasted sugary confection, or why it has that little hint of vanilla, or why you catch a whiff of a far off campfire, it could very well be the barrel the wine was made in. And if you are wondering why the price is so high on one of your favorite bottles of wine, you may just want to check what it was started in: a barrel crafted in France and shipped across the Atlantic or something stamped “Made in the USA.”