The Pearl vs The Wine Vessel

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‘Nothing of me is original. I am the combined effort of everyone I’ve ever known.” If you’re an avid Pearl reader, you may remember this quote from a previous article of mine on Terroir. Is this artistic recycling just sheer laziness on my part? Well probably. But also Chuck Palahniuk really hit the nail on the head in such a succinct statement. We as humans are walking, talking products of our environment. That’s why in a short conversation we can detect through accent and demeanor where a person is from. And if an accent or attitude adds flavor to a human being so too our surrounding terroir adds flavor to our wine. Taking that a step further, our greater environment holds a sub-environment within the family structure. We pull characteristics, for better or worse, from the home we are raised in and the people who raise us. And just as we can have our mother’s eyes or our fathers temper, so too our wine can pull characteristics from its home – namely the vessel in which it is stored.

So, let’s put wine on the therapist’s couch as it were and talk a little about its home life.  Namely, what are the different methods for storing wine? Why do we use oak and does it matter which region the oak comes from? What is the deal with stainless steel? (yes I meant to rhyme. Rhyming is cool, ask anybody.) Let’s delve in and talk about Wine’s earliest childhood memory: It’s home in clay.

The Heyday of Clay. The Oak barrel was not always the quintessential home for maturing wine. For years’ ancient civilizations, namely the Greeks and later the Romans, utilized clay amphorae to hold their wine. This was mostly due to its moldable and air tight qualities. Larger clay vessels were used for maturing the wine and smaller terracotta vessels were used in transportation. While now taking a back seat within the wine world, Amphorae have not completely disappeared. They are still used in many cultures today.

One such variation is the Qvevri used by the Georgians. Large egg shaped clay vessels are buried in the ground and remain relatively untouched. Burying the vessel underground keeps the temperature at a constant while the egg shape allows sediment to rest at the bottom, leaving the wine free to move about. This method keeps the wine in its natural state, a herald to the way wine was made before all our modern-day advances. The result is a wine production that is pure in its natural elements, such as an Orange Wine, a white wine exposed to the skins. But while these clay vessels still serve a purpose to our wine, there’s no doubt it packed up some time ago and moved on to a new home – The Oak Barrel.

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There’s No Place Like Oak. The discovery and formation of the barrel revolutionized the wine industry. Why oak instead of others woods? Its resources were abundant (especially around the alps), it was softer than others woods, making it easier to bend and shape and allowing for faster production, and the tighter grain of oak allowed for a more airtight seal. As the advent of this new vessel took off, wine makers began to realize in addition to the practical properties, the wood imparted a deeper quality or flavor to the wine. Flash forward to modern day, and wine makers can manipulate that simple oak barrel to greatly affect the flavor of the wine. How so?

A Toast to your Health, or rather a Healthy Amount of Toast. The determining factor of how much flavor a barrel imparts lies within how much it is toasted.  Toasting the wood mellows the tannins, changes the flavor and releases several natural compounds from the barrel. Who wants to go on a very short scientific journey into the grain of the barrel? Everyone have their seatbelts on? Good! Here we go:  Different compounds in the wood release different flavors in our wine. Oak lactone releases an aroma of fresh oak and coconut. Vanillin presents itself as (you guessed it) vanilla. Eugenol and Isoeugenolis produce our spicy, clove flavors. Guaiacol and 4-Methylguaiacol give us our smoky taste, and Furfural and 5-Methylfurfural is where we get our caramel or our almond-like characteristics. (Ten extra pearl points to you if you read those compounds out loud! Seriously, why can’t scientists ever come up with names we can pronounce? But I digress.) All these compounds can vary depending on the specific oak species and the amount of toasting done to the barrel. For example, heavy toasting may actually inhibit vanillin from leaving the wood, but increase Eugenol. This is where our wine maker becomes a chemist of sorts, determining the strength of the toasting to produce the flavors he’d like to see imprinted on the wine.  You survived our scientific journey! But wait there’s more. Now that we understand the flavors we can get from our oak barrels, how do we determine which specie we want?

The Gain is in the Grain. Does the species of oak really make a difference? After all, a tree is a tree no matter it’s country of origin right? Nope, not quite. And here’s why: It all comes down to the grain. A smaller grain means less evaporation and a more gradual release of wood flavors. Thus barrels with a smaller grain, typically French Oak, will have a subtler flavor palate. Following this line of thought then we can see the larger grain, typically American oak, will leave a larger footprint on our wine. American oak is also known to have more vanillin, leaving a sweeter aroma behind. So which do you choose, American or French? That answer would be left up to your palate. Do you want the subtle, mysterious Frenchman? Or the boisterous but sweet American? Can’t decide? Don’t worry, you can always settle for the safe and stable Hungarian, considered the halfway point between the American and French Barrels.

An Ode to Oak. When it comes down to it, your barrel is not something to take lightly. It can add some serious complexity to your wine. Our friends over at Allora Vineyards described it this way, “We believe that “oaking” of the barrels is like using the spices in your kitchen. The spices are designed to complement and enhance the meal rather than overpower it. We feel the same about the barrels.” I really couldn’t say it better myself. So instead I’ll move on to stainless steel!

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The New Kid on the Block. Wine has lived in its barrel for quite some time now. But hold on, there’s something new and shiny on the scene. It’s reflective and pretty! Is it wrong for our wine to be interested in stainless steel? No, and here’s why. Because stainless steel is not a replacement to Oak, it is simply a partner (or maybe a summer home? Honestly I got lost in my own metaphors here folks). Yes, it has its benefits over oak (longer durability, easy to clean producing pure flavor quality, and more control over flavor introduction and temperature), but it also has its con’s (mainly loss of flavor compounds discussed earlier from oak). The point is you don’t have to choose one over the other. My good friend and fellow blogger, The Sparkly Wine Mermaid, prefers her white wines aged in stainless and her reds aged in Oak. It’s an individualized choice.

The key is to experiment. Try some orange wines aged in clay, try an old-world wine from a French oak barrel. Go to Long Island and experience some stainless aged Sauvignon Blanc that will knock your socks off. In this Pearl’s opinion, There’s no right or wrong here, so try out some homes, learn as much as you can, and sip happy.