How oak barrels enrich and enliven wines

Modern wineries are filled with stainless steel tanks.

They’re easy to clean, and allow for temperature control. However, winemakers still use maturation in traditional oak barrels to refine and improve the finest red wines, even though barrel-aging is laborious and expensive. Just as a chef might reduce a sauce over heat to concentrate its flavors, add butter to enrich its texture, or season with spices to enhance flavor, vintners use oak barrels to adjust the intensity, the mouthfeel, and the taste of their wines.

Barrels will enrich and concentrate wine over time, but only new barrels contribute noticeable flavors. The toasty, nutty scents associated with new oak are quite distinctive and resemble those found in barrel-aged spirits like bourbon or Cognac. Historically, French oak barrels have been preferred by winemakers for the complex yet subtle flavors they impart, delicate notes of cocoa, coffee, or polished leather. However, American oak barrels are far more cost-effective and contribute slightly different flavors, more like vanilla, caramel or toasted coconut.

This terrific value-oriented cabernet sauvignon from a family-owned estate on California’s Central Coast makes a great example of how well a judicious touch of new American oak can enhance a bold red wine. The wine’s dominant flavors are of black and red fruits like cherries, plums and raspberries. But thanks to a year spent aging in American oak barrels (of which 19% were new), toasty oak accents are also apparent in its scent and flavor — like a faint whiff of coconut donuts or crème brûlée.

Paso Robles, California

$18.99, 13.9% alcohol

PLCB Item #8785

Sale price through June 26th – regularly $21.99

Also available at:

Total Wine & More in Wilmington and Claymont; $12.97, totalwine.com

Gloucester City Bottlestop in Gloucester City; $12.99, bottlestopnj.com

Canal’s Liquors in Pennsauken; $14.09, canalsliquors.com


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