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Dear Dr. Vinny,
I am familiar with "new oak," "old oak," and "French oak," but what is neutral oak? And what is the advantage?
—Paul W., Martinez, Calif.
There's a joke here about barrels from Switzerland, but I can't quite put my finger on it. More seriously, the newer the barrel, the "stronger" it is, and the more flavor it imparts. After three or four years, it tends to lose its potency. This is what is meant by neutral oak or neutral barrels—ones that have lost their strength to infuse wines with oaky nuances. ("Old" oak tends to be neutral in its effects, unless the wood is dirty or diseased, in which case it's a different story altogether.)
Why use neutral oak? They can add a rich textural element, while still preserving fresh fruit notes. Neutral barrel fermentation can also add a slightly different aroma profile.
I asked winemaker Kevin Morrisey of Stags' Leap Winery about this. Morrisey ferments Viognier in barrels at least 3 years old. He said he does this because he wants to keep the aromas and flavors of Viognier "uncluttered" by oak. He added that barrels don't allow for very much heat transfer and thus provide the perfect thermal conditions for healthy yeast activity. And just when I thought he couldn't get any geekier, Morrisey also talked about the geometry of a barrel shape, pointing out that the "fat belly" of a barrel allows a very large surface upon which the lees are deposited. The surface-to-volume ration is much greater in a barrel than in a tank, and the rough surface only increases the enhancement of this desirable leesy character.
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