There are only three factors Wilson Creek uses to affect the final style of the wine such as its body, color, flavor, tannins, et al. The three factors are...
- the grapes from which the wine is made
- the yeast used to ferment the juice
- the storage media because...
... believe it or not, wines like to breath. Unlike stainless steel tanks, barrels allow an exchange of air through its wood. Yes, some of the wine actually evaporates through the barrels, so the barrels must be topped off to avoid any space or oxygen contact with the wine.
If any of you have made it to our barrel room, you would have seen we have both barrels and stainless steel tanks. Both are needed to capture the style of the wine we are after. Typically, white wines are stored in stainless tanks, and red wines in oak barrels. Chardonnay is one of the few white wines that may benefit from barrel fermentation or barrel aging. Oak barrels have been used for thousands of years, and we still use them because it is still THE best way to age and add complex flavors to wine. We are a bit more scientific and intentional in HOW the barrels are made and used, but there is no better wood to perfect a wine.
While there are three types of barrels that vintners can select from (America Oak, French Oak, and European Oak), the finer grains in the wood are found in French Oak trees. It is for this reason that Wilson Creek uses mostly French Oak barrels to enhance the flavor. But when our wine maker is looking for a bolder oakiness, he likes to use older American oak barrels because of their larger grain.
French Oak vs. American Oak
American Oak is becoming more popular as an alternative to French Oak for making barrels in which to age wine as quality improves and vintners learn how to treat the wood to meet their needs. Marked by strong vanilla, dill and cedar notes, it is used primarily for aging Cabernet, Merlot and Zinfandel, for which it is the preferred oak.
Before each barrel is ready to house the wine, it must first get toasted. That is, they get heated over a fire in the center of the barrel. Traditionally, the fire is made from the same wood scraps and chips created in the barrel making process. The toast gives the wine the oak flavors of the Cabernet and the buttery vanilla flavors found in the Chardonnay. The most common toast level is "medium toast".
Without proper management a barrel can easily become the costliest part of creating a wine. A barrel's life expectancy is only three years before it needs to be replaced; at a cost of up to $800 a barrel.