Barrel aging is the cornerstone of the process called élevage, which is the French term meaning “raising” or “upbringing” used to describe what happens to the wine between fermentation and bottling. The wine's élevage can last for a few months to many years, during which time the wine's flavours integrate and mature…
In oak aging many extracted aromatic compounds are well integrated with the wine’s intrinsic aromas and they greatly contribute to wine’s richness and flavour complexity. The important point is that the wine must have a certain aromatic fineness and sufficiently complex structure to blend well with oak derived flavors. Ordinary wines cannot be turned into quality wines by oak aging.
How does barrel maturation affects wine quality?
Oak wood is seasoned, and barrels toasted to various levels and contribute differently to oak derived flavours in barrel aging. Oak flavour - many volatile and non-volatile compounds are extracted from oak wood which influence flavour and quality of wine.
Secondly, controlled oxidation enhances and stabilizes red wine colour and decrease astringency and add suppleness. The oxygen reacts with the wine’s phenolic compounds, such as pigments and tannins and brings about many positive changes. The main positive effects of aging (controlled oxidation) include enhancement and stabilization of the colour, softening of tannins, development of complex aromas and improvement in the wine’s texture (body and mouthfeel).
Another advantage of barrel maturation is that it encourages clarification (fining) and stabilization (1*) of the wine in the most natural, if not necessarily the fastest, way.
The costly long maturation time in barrels for all our wines, allow us to bottle without any fining (vegan wine), stabilization or filtration. The only allowance we make shortly before bottling are minimum effective SO2 (sulphur) for minimum protection.
By racking our red wines immediately after alcoholic fermentation and allowing malolactic conversion to take place in barrel, a much better integration of wood and wine is achieved, together with greater complexity of flavour. All our white wines are subjected to barrel fermentation prior to barrel maturation, which like for the reds, results in much better and harmonized integration than putting white wine into barrel only after fermentation.
The barrel’s age and size affect the amount of oak flavour that will be transmitted to the wine. Smaller barrels impart more oak flavor because they allow more contact between the wood and the wine. Oak barrels lose their signature flavour compounds with use, so they must be replaced every few vintages. In Bordeaux, the famous Chateau appellations take pride, and have the financial means, to use new oak barrels for every vintage. However, that is not always a sensible decision. In a not so good vintage year, the oak may compete with the wine, tasting more of wood than fruit, and may be aggressively tannic and dry.
Some producers try to mimic the flavours of oak aging with less cost by adding oak chips to wines that are aging in stainless steel vessels or old barrels. Oak chips add vanilla and spice notes but have no effect on a wine’s texture like oak barrels do.
Ultimately, when you have a great vineyard behind and the wine made from great healthy grapes, the process does not matter that much, and with the years the true wine reveals itself. A great vineyard always comes out (almost) regardless of how you make the wine. Such wines will age really well and show heritage and class even when the vinification and ageing methods differ. As Hans always says, my wines speak for themselves…
1* stabilization = wine-processing operations to make sure that the wine, once bottled, will not form hazes, clouds, or unwanted deposits; become gassy; or undergo rapid deterioration of flavour after bottling. Young wines are supersaturated in tartrates and may form crystals in the bottle.
For many more conventional wines, some residual sugar is necessary to balance the high acidity, sterile filtration and sterile bottling are ensuring stability as well as large additions of sulfur dioxide and sorbic acid which will sufficiently inhibit most yeast growth.