It’s not just about the flavors that Oak imparts, a barrel has its sort of ‘Ecology’ that adds a lot more to a wine than merely Oak flavorings.
Over on the Wine Berserkers message boards, a new member asked about the difference between mass-produced and boutique wines. Among the discussion, Eric Hall, of Roadhouse Winery in Healdsburg, wrote this simple statement to help the poster understand how barrels provide a different experience than the cheaper oak chips that can often be used in inexpensive or bulk wines.
But you know me and my affinity for words and ways to communicate about wine. So the use of ecology stood out to me. While I always like to talk about how wine is a living, breathing entity, I rarely think of that during its production phase (after the grapes have left their natural ecology in the vineyard). There’s probably more of an argument to be made that it’s doing most of its living and breathing during this stage, but in my mind, the human manipulation of yeasts, oxygen, carbon dioxide and other chemicals or compounds don’t quite feel very natural.
Eric, however, makes a very good observation and is exactly right to call it an ecology. The barrel, which becomes a wine’s home for days, weeks or for many years, usually goes untouched. The wine, lives, breathes and matures in the vessel. Unlike when bottles or stainless steel vats are used for aging, the wood allows for some oxygen to enter. The wood can also age with the wine, sometimes losing many of the flavors it imparts. Depending on the barrel, it may even soften the wine.
It’s in that barrel where the wine can really do its thing — become more complex, develop new flavors, balance its acids and astringency. And it’s the ecology inside the barrel — where molecules and chemicals dance inside the liquid — that helps wine become wine.
While this may just be an “oh, duh,” moment for me, Eric’s response while helping a newbie understand the mysteries of wine struck me as very poetic, and a reminder of how fragile making wine can be.