ask dr. vinny

Hello there! I'm Dr. Vinifera, or "Vinny" for short. Ask me your toughest wine questions, from the technical aspects of winemaking to the fine points of etiquette. I hope you find my answers educational and even amusing. Looking for a particular answer? Check my archive and my FAQs. You can also follow me on Twitter: @AskDrVinny.


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.

Dear N.T.W.,

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.

—Dr. Vinny


Do you have a question for Dr. Vinny? Ask it here...

Wine Basics

We break down the basics—how to taste, serve, store and more. Plus:
» Maps of major wine regions
» Grape variety characteristics

How-to Videos

Learn to taste wine like a pro, pull a cork with flair, get great wine service in a restaurant and more

Wine Spectator School: All courses are FREE for WineSpectator.com Members

Learn from the experts and get the most out of each sip. Take one of our online courses or take them all—from the ABCs of Tasting to in-depth seminars on Food Pairing, California Cabernet, Bordeaux, Tuscany, Sensory Evaluation and more.

Browse our course catalog
Check out the professional wine sales and service courses
Learn Wine Forum: Got questions? Get answers

MEMBER LOGIN

= members only

Keep me logged in      Forgot Password?

Free Email Newsletters

Sips & Tips | Wine & Healthy Living
Video Theater | Collecting & Auctions

» View samples
» Or sign up now!
» Manage my newsletter preferences

Classifieds

The marketplace for all your wine needs, including:

Wine Storage | Wine Clubs
Dining & Travel | Wine Auctions
Wine Shops | Wine Accessories