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Dear Dr. Vinny,
When we say a wine tastes like vanilla, coffee, or some other spices—and these come from the oak barrel—does it mean that the barrel has been used to store coffee or vanilla beans before? Or just the texture of the oak provides that aroma? I have heard of whiskey barrels reused to store coffee.
—New to Wine, Washington, D.C.
The characteristics that an oak barrel gives to a wine come from the barrel itself—it isn’t previously infused with any other products. The intensity of a barrel’s impact on a wine depends on the type of oak tree it hailed from, the drying process of the wood, and how toasted the inside of the barrel was. (A more heavily toasted barrel will have stronger flavors of spice and smoke, for example.) Even so-called “neutral” barrels are sometimes used—that is, barrels that are about 3 or 4 years old and have lost their potency—but they can still add texture, making a wine seem more rich and creamy.
The phenols in the barrel interact with the wine inside, and depending on a whole multitude of variables, including what kind of grapes are used, the flavors of the wine combine with the flavors imparted from the barrel, and you start getting some of those vanilla, coffee, mocha, butter, or caramel notes. And if a winemaker chooses to ferment a wine in barrel (and not just age it), the yeasts themselves interact with the flavor components, resulting in even more influence.
By the way, I’ve heard of used whiskey barrels being used to age everything from coffee to tequila, but never wine.
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