Wine makers rely on barrels to add character to your wine, with the most popular variants coming from France and the US.
Most oenophiles can tell the difference between wines aged in oak barrels vs. stainless steel drums, especially with a grape like Chardonnay. While stainless steel tends to produce a tart, acidic, fruit forward wine, Chardonnay aged in oak will likely have notes of buttered popcorn and cream soda.
But what about the reds? And more importantly, what makes one oak barrel different from another? Do expensive French oak barrels always produce the highest quality wine? To find out, I tasted three Riojas from Bodegas Beronia. All were 100% 2013 Tempranillo, all aged in different types of barrels. What I learned might surprise you.
Not all barrels are created equal
There are a surprising number of variables that influence the quality and flavor profile of an oak barrel aside from the country of origin. A discerning winemaker keeps all these components in mind when shopping for barrels:
The more times a barrel is used, the less flavor it adds to its liquid contents. After 3-5 vintages, most barrels become “neutral” and no longer impact a wine’s flavor profile.
For added control over the flavor profile, barrel manufacturers burn the inside of the barrel over an open flame. While Light and Medium toast offer more subtle aromas, Medium Plus and heavy toasting bring out more robust flavors.
The older the tree, the tighter the grain. The tighter the grain, the more wonderful aromas waiting inside. French oak trees have the widest variety of grains.
French Oak Barrels
Oak trees grow in forests throughout France, and each region offering its own nuances. Most French oak barrels demand prices of at least $1,000, with some fetching upwards of $3,000/barrel depending on the quality.
The first Rioja at the tasting was aged for 17 months in 100% new French oak with a Medium Plus toast. On the nose, I noted perfume, lavender, and vanilla. On the palate, this wine was the smoothest and silkiest of the three, but also the least flavorful.
American Oak Barrels
The US has an abundance of oak trees across several regions and states, with a typical barrel fetching around $500. Unlike French oak, which must be cut along the grain, American oak can be cut any way you like, resulting in far less waste during barrel production.
American Oak is often described as tasting like coconut, cream soda, and baking spices. These notes also tend to be much stronger than the subtle nuances from French oak. My second Rioja was aged in an American barrel (also for 17 months, 100% new oak, and Medium Plus toast). I could absolutely taste the spices, noting an abundance of black pepper, cinnamon, and nutmeg both on the nose and palate.
“Beronia Style” Mixed Oak Barrels
Since the 1980’s, Matias Calleja of Bodegas Beronia has been perfecting the “Beronia style” of winemaking, which relies heavily on oak barrel aging. Many of their wines are aged in “mixed oak” barrels, which feature French Oak tops and American Oak staves (sides). The result: harmony. The third Rioja at the tasting is best described as the “Goldilocks” wine of the trio. Balanced, smooth, aromatic, flavorful—just right.
It seems that with the right winemaker, it’s less about which type of oak barrel is best and more about how they can come together to make a beautifully harmonized wine.