Large old oak barrels used in Alsace have little influence on the wines’ aromas. Explain WHY.
[Answer(s) based on WSET Level 3 material]
Let’s start with the more, I’ll call it “obvious” answers, as this bit of information could technically apply to any large, used oak barrel anywhere in the world. Have you ever walked into a hardware store and the scent coming from the lumber yard is just overwhelming? (I personally find it pleasant.) That’s new wood. Similarly, the new wood (typically oak, most popularly from France—but also used are American, Hungarian and Eastern European oak varieties), used to create a barrel has its own aroma and flavor (yes flavor) profile. This is a bit of a side note, but besides the forrest terroir, the other thing that affects these aromatic compounds as well as the tannin material is the level of toast a specific cooperage uses when building the barrel. These can range from a “light toast” to a heavy or “long” toast. The point of the matter is that when wine is put into freshly toasted wood, those fresh organic compounds and the toast all have an affect on the wine, basically infusing the wine, imparting those aromas and flavors (as well as textures) that we can (usually) pick up when we’re drinking. But after about three fills (or three vintages), the barrel is now considered “old” or “seasoned” or “neutral.” It will impart less flavor and aromas the older it gets. And extremely old oak barrels, like the ones used in Alsace, will have virtually no affect on the wine at all, other than it will continue to allow for slow oxygenation.
The other thing to think about in regards to this question is the size, the surface area ratio. A larger vessel means that there’s less wine coming into contact with the actual wood. A lot of winemakers who utilize new oak barrels, but want a minimal affect, will choose larger barrel sizes for this reason.
And secret answer C. I was going to use this one for an Alsatian FUN FACT in a previous post, but knew I had this quiz question coming up. So, here it is. The old oak barrels used in much of Alsace are somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 years old. Over time, these barrels have built up a layer of tartrates around the interior, which means even the wine that is touching the perimeter of the vessel cannot be affected by it. Pretty neat, right?
Why is this important? Well, the four noble grapes of the Alsatian region are Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer, Muscat, and Riesling. These are extremely aromatic grape varieties—they’re soft, subtle in the fruit and floral aromas and flavors—thus, winemaking in Alsace is intended to keep varietal characteristics, not mask them. So the spices and toast from a new oak barrel, would completely overwhelm those grapes. So winemaking is very, shall we say, minimal intervention.
How’d I do? Anybody want to add anything?
And now to take a small tangent…
Tartrates, for those who are unfamiliar with the terminology, is a crystalline build up (some refer to it as “wine diamonds”) that happens when tartaric acid and potassium combine. It typically happens at extremely cold temperatures (below 40°F). And if this happens in barrel, the crystals attach themselves to the wall of the barrel. (These can be cleaned out by the way.)
Unfortunately, I do not have a photo. But some of you may be familiar with the concept and not even know it. In some wines the crystals will form post-bottling and sometimes you’ll find it as a sediment at the bottom of the glass. Other times, and I think more commonly, you’ll find them stuck to your cork.
Yummy. No worries. If it’s in the neck and you can wipe it with a towel, you’ll be fine. If it’s too far in the neck or really did sink to the bottom of the bottle, pour the wine through a sieve into your decanter. You’ll still be fine.
Alright, I’m opening it up to you again. Have you tasted an Alsatian wine you want to recommend?
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