Wine Talk

Snooth User: Drunk as a Skunk

Oak vs. tanks

Posted by Drunk as a Skunk, Sep 25, 2009.

Need a little help on this matter. My wine guy suggested many wines to me most out of tanks, like it was better than sitting in oak. Can someone explain the main differences. My take so far is that American oak gives a Vanilla flavor to the wine(is this right or wrong)? And why do the French think their oak is better? Thanks

Replies

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Reply by gregt, Sep 25, 2009.

That's all too difficult to explain in a single post but let's see if we can summarize as follows -

BS,
no,
it's theirs.

So as not to be so glib, here's a little bit of info. If you remember your geometry, as you increase the circumference of a circle, you square the volume of it. Since a barrel is basically a cylinder, increasing the size of the barrel diameter results in a much greater increase in the volume of wine it can hold. It's just like grapes - smaller grapes have a higher skin to juice ratio that bigger grapes and the flavors come out of the skin for the most part. So if you think of the wood as the skin, it's the same thing. Now if you take two barrels made of the same wood and of the same age, but one is twice the size of the other, the wine put into the smaller one will pick up more of the wood flavor than the wine in the second one. That's the first thing.

In addition, wood is porous, unlike stainless steel or plastic or glass. So you have a tiny amount of oxygen exchange with the wine that takes place through the wood. Again, since the smaller barrel has less juice per wood than the larger one, you will get more oxygen exchanged with the wine. From these two things alone, you will have two very different wines after they've spent a year in the respective barrels.

But when they talk about tanks, they're talking about something else. Those are much bigger than the 225 liter barrel you can envision. The tanks are bigger than your hot tub and they hold the equivalent of many barrels, depending again, of course, on the size of the tank. Many people like to ferment in tanks, rather than in steel, for the reasons stated above. While it is easier to control the temperature of steel, fermenting in a tank can result in a softer and rounder wine as the fermentation takes place in the wood. Then many wines are aged in tanks too. Once the wood has been used a few times, it imparts very little, if any, flavor to the juice or wine. Moreover, back to your geometry - the ratio of juice to skin is even even greater with a tank than with the barrels, so even if there were a flavor component imparted from the wood, it's negligible with a tank. Also the oxygen exchange is far less. So depending on what kind of wine you want to end up with, you may prefer tank fermenting and/or aging for your juice. In some places it was traditional to age the wine for a very long time in large, old tanks.

Now as far as whether or not that's better, it all depends. Most tanks are oak anyway, so "sitting in oak" is still taking place. But there are any number of wine snobs who sally forth into battle armed with minimal knowledge but many opinions. My advice is that as soon as someone starts telling you that one thing is good and another thing is bad, you just ignore them.

American vs other oak is an entirely different issue. There are compounds in oak that are the same as those in vanilla and for that reason vanilla is one of the easiest flavors to imitate - artificial vanilla flavoring is available in every grocery store. French oak typically comes from one of several forests that the French have been safeguarding for centuries. If you plant an acorn today, you won't see barrels out of the resulting tree in your lifetime. So you need a long term view. If a tree grows slowly in a cold area, it ends up with a nice tight grain. For that reason, maple from northern New York State makes very nice butcher blocks. So the French have a few forests where the weather is just right for producing oak that makes great barrels. The species of oak that grows there is not native to the US. In the US, they generally use a species of white oak that is also used for flooring. Traditionally they used this oak for bourbon barrels. If you look at a piece of wood, you see that there are little tiny tubes running up and down - the grain - and usually the French oak was split along those tubes, where the Americans just cut the wood, exposing more ends. So now you've started with a different species of oak and you've cut the wood differently. On top of that, the French would stack their wood outside for several years and let the wind and rain and snow leech out the tannins and other compounds. The Americans would dry it in kilns and set to work making barrels. The resulting barrels were obviously going to be very very different.

Those differences are drastically reduced if one treats the American oak in the same way as one would treat the French oak, and if one sources the American oak from someplace where it grew slowly with tight grain. Try Ridge Monte Bello. It's made with American oak that they treat as I mention. See if it's full of vanilla flavor. I'll bet you a bottle that your "wine guy" has never tried the same wine aged in different barrels side by side, or he would not be so quick to talk about such differences.

As far as why the French think their oak is better for barrels, if they do - for one thing it's got a longer history. They were starting to cultivate their forests long before the Americans were even sure they'd survive as a country, and they've figured out how to make really great barrels. Increasingly, the Americans are following suit. And for what it's worth, the Hungarians have a history at least as long as the French and they also make barrels from their oak, which is the same species as much of the French oak. Probably the next most common would be Slovenian oak.

Since the French dominate the barrel trade at the high end, think back to your tanks. Many winemakers are criticized for over-oaking their wines. They put the wine into new French barrels and the wine picks up all kinds of spice and vanilla flavors. So the criticism of lots of oak is to a large extent also a criticism of French oak. In CA, Australia, Spain, France, Italy, and many other places, when people talk about oaky wines, they are usually taking about costly wines and they aren't talking about American oak.

Again, it's a matter of taste and age. If you drink a young wine and it's oaky, that does not necessarily mean that in a few years the oak will be as prominent. Of course, it very well may, but if the wine was intended to be set aside for a while, it's an invalid criticism.

Finally, new French barrels may cost $800 each or around that. That has to be added to the price of the wine. There are many delicious wines from places like the south of France that are aged in tanks and that are $15 or even less. If your wine guy is recommending those, he's doing you a solid favor whether or not he's doing it because of his own palate preferences.

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Reply by gregt, Sep 25, 2009.

And sorry for the typos and messed up syntax. God I wish there was a way to edit posts on this site.

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Reply by dmcker, Sep 25, 2009.

I hear you, Greg, about the need for editability to the posts, at least within a certain length of time after they go up, and before anyone answers them.

Weren't we going to do a thread about all the differences between the various types of American, French and other oak, how the barriques are built, how the winemaker chooses and rotates the barrels, comparison to any other woods (apparently the ancient Mesopotamians used palm wood, though if you've ever cut down a palm tree and tried to do anything with the wood you know how hard it is to work), as well as stainless steel, cement, etc., not to mention, heaven forbid, use of oaks chips instead, etc., etc., etc.?

So shall this be that thread?

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Reply by gregt, Sep 25, 2009.

Well, I didn't want to hijack the thread but why not. Maybe if more people lobby Phillip about the edit function, that might change too!!!

Anyhow, the different types of oak, different barrel making, etc., is a whole area of research. As you know, it's not as easy as saying "American oak = X, French oak = Y". There's way too much that can be a factor to simplify things so much. And there's a quality I have found in a number of different Hungarian wines over the years that I didn't really think about much until very recently and now I'm not so sure it's not from the oak they use. But before I can talk about it, I really need to try the wines again.

As it happens, I'm finishing four bottles of Hungarian whites at this very moment, but in a cruel ironic twist of fate, I don't think any of them have any oak aging.

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Reply by Drunk as a Skunk, Sep 26, 2009.

Thank you for your reply Greg. However, I'm still a little confused on one part.(While it is easier to control the temperature of steel, fermenting in a tank can result in a softer and rounder wine as the fermentation takes place in the wood.) At the risks of sounding like a total idiot, are you saying that their are large Steel tanks and their are also hot tub size tanks made of Wood? I do understand all the skin to juice ratio and differences in techniques in making barrels now. Thanks again

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Reply by gregt, Sep 26, 2009.

The tanks can be various sizes, from about the size of a garbage can to something that contains hundreds of gallons. Both wood and stainless. They can also both be cooled, albeit differently. The steel usually has a band of coolant wrapped around the tank. It's easy to both heat and cool that way. The wood is usually cooled by submerging a cooling system.

And fermentation is also done in cement, which is something else again. The ancients used to ferment that way because they could bury the large tanks in the ground to keep them cool, as they had no refrigeration systems until quite recently in human history. Cement is becoming popular again. Usually it's glass-lined but not always. Again, that's all up to the winemaker.

I know nothing about these guys but here is a very nice description of winemaking with pictures. Very good job.

http://www.stonehillwinery.com/wine...

Here's another. Seems like a blog site but the guy posted a lot of pictures along the side. He's got pics of the big wood tanks and the stainless, as well as barrels at the bottom of the page. Look closely. Those barrels with the red are larger than Bordeaux barrels. In Chateauneuf du Pape they traditionally didn't want a lot of wood influence, so they use larger barrels. At the bottom right of the last picture, there are some Bordeaux barrels, or barriques. Those also look new. I don't know for sure but I think that's what we're looking at anyway. And that is a perfect illustration of what's going on. People in the Rhone are using some new barrels for some of their wine as opposed to the old large ones. Wine geeks get all hot and bothered because that's not "traditional" and the wine is losing its "soul" and all kinds of other crap. Looking at it and tasting it is interesting. Listening to the BS is something else again. But anyhow, how you'll have a better idea of what your wine guy is talking about. Cheers.

http://www.chateauneuf.dk/en/produc...

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Reply by D9sus4, Sep 27, 2009.

GregT, I believe this is the link you meant to provide regarding a "...nice description of winemaking with pictures." http://www.stonehillwinery.com/wine... By the way, this is one of the very best wineries in Missouri IMHO.

Drunk as a Skunk, you didn't mention whether you were discussing red or white wines with your "wine guy"? In the case of white wines, many fine whites are made without aging in oak barrels. Many people feel that oak can overpower the taste of certain white wine grapes. It is uncommon, for instance, to find an oaked sauvignon blanc. Also, since most white wines are drunk young, the tannins derived from aging in oak aren't as important to them.

Red wines, on the other hand, usually profit from maturing in oak barrels as they provide hydrolyzable tannins that help protect the wine from oxidation and reduction allowing them to age longer. Phenols within the wood interact with the wine to impart flavors that add to its complexity and gives it those vanilla and other flavors that we mostly smell. Here's a link to a photo that shows the effect of aging in oak on the color of red wine http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:O...

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Reply by dmcker, Sep 28, 2009.

It's fashionable at the moment in certain circles to talk of not letting oak touch white wine, whether sauvignon blanc or even chardonnay. This is short-sighted, I feel, since the proper oak when used for the proper length of time can add all sorts of complexities to even a white that only stainless steel, etc. can't provide. As backlash against past over-oaked monstrosities from California and elsewhere, it is understandable for now. The pendulum will swing back to a happy medium before too long, though.

BTW, D9sus4, check out how they do it with their SB blend here:
http://www.domainedechevalier.com/
Once you get to the site and choose your language, click on 'The Cellar', then again on 'White Wine Cellar', and wait a few moments to load.
Domaine de Chevalier, in Pessac Leognan in Graves, near Chateaux Haut Brion and La Mission Haut Brion, is one of my favorite sauvignon blanc blends. Complexity, beauty and grace, in luxuriously delicious balance. Not at all like most any SB from the New World.

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Reply by dmcker, Sep 28, 2009.

Meant to add at the end of the previous post that an important component in the sophisticated complexity of the Domaine de Chevalier sauvignon blanc is the winemaker's enlightened use of oak.

Pressed 'approve' too quickly, though. Once again, Greg, where's our post-posting editing capability?

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Reply by D9sus4, Sep 28, 2009.

dmcker, While I also prefer lightly oaked white wines to unoaked, it is actually traditional in some old world wine producing areas, such as the Loire Valley, to not use oak in making their white wine. The Sancerre & Pouilly-Fumé wines produced in the Loire since the 1st century AD are characterized by an avoidance of barrel aging and malolactic fermentation. Oak softens wines, so if you want a crisp white wine, you don't use it. http://www.loirevalleywine.com/home... , http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Loire_...(wine)

This link is not directly related to what I just wrote, but it might be of interest in general with regard to the effect of oak on white wine http://www.ajevonline.org/cgi/conte...

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Reply by gregt, Sep 28, 2009.

Yes but how does oak soften wine? Thru partial oxidation, so the length of time in oak will matter, and also by reacting with the compounds produced during fermentation. However, the biggest factor in maintaining a "crisp" wine is like you said - the lack of malolactic fermentation because malic acid is perceived as a much harsher acid than lactic. If you prevent the malolactic fermentation and still do the alcoholic fermentation in barrel, you still end up with a "crisp" wine. In fact, some of those pick up the best of all worlds - very crisp but without any harshness.

Picking time is also a big factor. Also, the winemakers in the Loire used extensive battonage or "sur lie" aging to help soften what might otherwise have been screamingly harsh wines. They seem to have gotten it right though because those are some of my favorite whites.

Lacking oak, some other producers oxidized the wines to soften the acidity. It's an interesting issue anyway.

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Reply by D9sus4, Sep 28, 2009.

Right, but as oxidization occurs, the wine is evaporating and condensing thereby changing a light wine to a more concentrated wine which is not necessarily desirable in a white wine. Reds and hearty whites like Chardonnay, yes, but if your goal is a light white wine, then no. It's more a question of style really.

But I agree that you can also get a crisper white wine by eliminating malolactic fermentation. However, the process was developed to prevent secondary fermentation from occurring in the bottle, and sometimes grapes that have too much malic acid need to have it done. While there are many wineries that induce malolactic fermentation regardless of the level of malic acid present, most of my favorite wineries do it only when necessary.

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Reply by D9sus4, Sep 28, 2009.

Forgot to mention, there is also the factor of where the grapes are grown. Cold climate grapes are higher in acids and lower in sugar. Warm climate grapes are lower in acids and higher in sugar. So you can't apply a universal rule to all grapes. It's up to the winemaker to decide what works best for their grapes in their area of the world.

Here's a link to a good article on acidity in wine: http://www.wineperspective.com/the_...

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Reply by dmcker, Sep 28, 2009.

D0sus4, I wasn't talking about a supposed need to oak all whites, but rather the opposite trend towards demonization of virtually any oaking for any white. I also very much enjoy a range of whites from the Loire. But I sure would miss the oak in whites from Burgundy, Graves, and enlightened New World producers. Am now curious about who might oak, how, in the Loire, though...

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Reply by D9sus4, Sep 28, 2009.

dmcker, Understood. I'd hate to see the pendulum swing too far that direction as well. I personally have not tried any unoaked Chardonnay yet that I love, although I've tried some that were quaffable. But heavily oaked Chardonnays are not appealing to me either. Here's my current favorite: http://www.snooth.com/wine/dutton-g...

Read recently that some of the Loire Valley wineries are experimenting with oaking their wines now that global warming (in their words) has increased the average temperature in the region by a few degrees causing the fruit to ripen more. Would be interested in hearing what you find out and any recommendations for Loire wines.

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Reply by schellbe, Sep 29, 2009.

D9sus4, Unoaked Chardonnays? How about a good Chablis? This is one region where I prefer no oak, but producers differ on this.

Perhaps to repeat the obvious, but white Bordeaux (e.g. Chevalier) is a Sauvignon Blanc-Semillon blend, generally with oak treatment. Sancerre (Loire) is all Sauvignon Blanc and is traditionally unoaked. Correct me if I am wrong on my assessment here.

My view is there is a place for both oaked and non-oaked whites.

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Reply by D9sus4, Sep 29, 2009.

schellbe, Chablis is another example of a cool climate white wine which is high acid, low sugar and is not traditionally aged in oak barrels. I don't care for them myself. I prefer the Chardonnay based wines from the Côte de Beaune which come from a warmer region and are usually aged in oak.

But I totally agree, there is a place for both oaked and unoaked wines. I just prefer, as a general rule, the former. But that said, I do like Sancerre & Pouilly-Fumé wines produced in the Loire Valley which are traditionally unoaked.

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Reply by dmcker, Sep 29, 2009.

Chablis, though a very different expression of chardonnay than that from the Cote d'Or, is something I like very much. I might prefer in absolute terms the chardonnays from Beaune, but I'm very glad we have both. Though there's more controversy about the use of oak in Chablis than most other places, they still do use it. Especially for their premier crus and grand crus.

Let's look at the bottlings from Moreau, Fevre, Raveneau and Dauvissat, arguably the best producers in the district:
--Raveneau ferments in steel and ages in older casks (feuillettes with an average age of 7-8 years).
--Moreau generally ferments in steel and ages in oak, though they do a lot of tweaking from plot to plot in their grand crus.
http://www.domainechristianmoreau.c...
--Dauvissat claims to let no oak touch their wine.
--Fevre is a little stingier with their info, but appear to ferment in steel and age in oak casks. Perhaps that's because William Fevre was so vocal in the past about oak aging, while newer ownership/management (he sold out to the Henriot champagne house at the end of the '90s) seems to be cutting back a bit, and using more old casks.
http://www.williamfevre.fr/domaine....

These winemakers produce the best, most sophisticated, complex and longest living chardonnays from Chablis. And, even though each has its own variation in how they do it, they (all except Dauvissat) use oak (to greater and lesser extents) to get to the level of excellence they aim for, and that I very much appreciate. To me, they set the benchmarks for one distinctly attractive style of chardonnay.

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Reply by dmcker, Sep 29, 2009.

D9sus4,
"Chablis is another example of a cool climate white wine which is high acid, low sugar".

I believe there used to be fairly widespread chaptalization in the region, especially for the lesser wines, up to the '90s. I suppose we can thank global warming for the fact that the harvested grapes in the last decade or more have had higher sugar levels and this isn't really necessary any more.

Maybe what you call 'cool climate' whites will be those grown in Scotland in the future. Champagne, Mosel et al. will probably be growing syrah by then... ;-)

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Reply by gregt, Sep 29, 2009.

Chaptalization is still legal there but I'm not sure exactly who will admit to it. As far as acidity in cool or warm climate grapes goes, that's true because of the way in which grapes ripen. I assume you're talking about the climate rather than the grape itself.

When the grapes are young, the leaves are synthesizing carbohydrates for the grapes but later, as the grape begins to mature a bit, they produce their own in situ. And they produce most of their acid in situ. Malic and tartaric acid make up the largest proportion by far in the grape. After veraison, when the grape is ripening, the grape produces additional enzymes that make the malic acid start to degrade. If the metabolism of the grape is active, the degradation is faster and the grape becomes what people call "flabby". That's why people always talk about diurnal temperature swings. A grape like syrah for example, likes a lot of sun. But look where the best syrah comes from - the coolest places in warm areas. Same with Washington State in Horse Heaven Hills or much of the RIbera del Duero - the hilly areas have much colder nights than the lower areas.

OTOH, some grapes like riesling, furmint, chenin blanc, are rarely flabby even when grown in comparatively warm areas and/or when very ripe. Part of the profile of warm climate grapes comes from other characteristics that made those grapes appropriate. The Portuguese for example, have some grape vines that don't shut down in temps over 100 degrees F. Garnacha and monastrell also seem to be OK in lots of heat. But when those grapes are grown in cooler areas, they produce completely different wines. Syrah from Austria for example, is light, tart, and very different than the syrah from warmer places. (Actually it's pretty good.)

Then there is also the question of the clone you use. I did a tasting a week ago of different chardonnay clones in CA and Burgundy from the 2004 vintage. There were some clones with loose clusters that had grapes of different sizes and other clones of more uniform clusters. Huge difference in the wines even when grown in very close-by vineyards. So if you select your grape carefully and plant correctly, you can get acidity or lose it in warmer and colder areas.

I really agree with you guys about one thing - one of the best things you can do with chardonnay is make Chablis.


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