Barrel toasting can add many complexities to wine
Have you ever wondered why flavors such as mocha or caramel are present in wine? I’ve been a member of the Society of Wine Educators since 1982. The society has an annual conference drawing attendees and speakers from countries around the globe. Over the course of 3-4 days, attendees have the opportunity to taste hundreds of wines in formal seminars that are conducted several times throughout each day. One of the most enlightening break-out sessions in my nearly 30 conferences was a seminar on the effect of the barrel’s toast level on a wine.
First, let’s discuss toasting. Oak barrels are “toasted” (or charred) with fire to impart complexity to the wine. Toast levels can vary from low intensity up to a heavy char. A winemaker chooses the degree of toasting depending upon exactly what he/she wants to accomplish in their final product. Some winemakers even choose a variety of different toast levels and then blend the barrels for even more complexity.
Now, back to that fascinating seminar on barrel toast. The winery that sponsored this session had conducted an experiment over the prior year using one wine. This white varietal wine that had only been in stainless steel served as the “control wine.” The control had then placed in 4 different oak barrels—one with light toast, another with medium, a third with medium plus, and the last with heavy toast. Seminar participants first acquainted themselves with the unmanipulated control wine, then moved through the varying toasts to learn the nuances of each level of toasting on the mother wine. This exercise was one of the best learning experiences I’ve ever had related to wine.
Below is a general summary of how barrel toasting can influence the final flavor profiles in a wine:
- Light toast: coconut, hints of vanilla
- Medium toast: vanilla, subtle spices (e.g. cinnamon, cloves), mocha
- Medium plus toast: vanilla bean, butterscotch, coffee, chocolate, more intensity of spices, nuts (e.g. hazelnut)
- Heavy toast: caramel, smoky, roasted coffee