Archive for October, 2013



The French term elevage means education or upbringing. Winemakers use the term to describe the steps a winemaker takes to guide wine through many stages to maturity. Some wines, like precocious children, develop quickly. Others need more care, time and guidance to reach their full potential. Reserve wines with extraordinary attributes from prestigious vineyards receive special handling with the vineyard designation noted on the label. Wines that fall below a vintner’s standard can become a winery’s second label, sold off as bulk wine to other producers or turned into generic wines— known in various places as table wine, vin de pays, vin ordinaire or vino di tavola.
A winemaker’s judgment comes into play regarding crucial decisions about storage and aging, crucial elements that affect wine’s character, taste and stability. Most white wines age in stainless steel for several days to a few weeks and depending on the vintner’s vision, may get a kiss of oak. White wines generally are marketed more quickly than reds as they take less time to mature. Certain red varietals mature in oak barrels where complex flavors and aromas improve and tannins soften. Since oak barrels play a key role in winemaking choice of oak is a crucial element. Woods from particular forests are affected by terroir. Wood culled from different forests contributes a range of flavors and aromas to wine. A great winemaker uses a subtle hand regarding wood regarding it as a useful, rather than a dominant tool. Winemakers looking for prestige wines buy new barrels. The Cadillacs of barrels come from legendary French forests whose oak trees delivers subtlety, delicacy, refinement and complexity to wine. Other oaks have the potential to mask a wine’s integral personality by imparting unpleasant qualities. A winemaker’s choice of barrel depends on the wood’s grain, moisture content, drying methods and a cooper’s skill in crafting the barrel. Unfortunately, one French barrel costs approximately $600 to $800 that drives up the price of wine together with rising costs of labor, acreage and new grape plantings.
American oak, once disdained for its overly aggressive qualities, is the less costly darling of the wine industry. Careful air-drying and slow-fire roasting tames some harsh components of wood from Virginia, Missouri, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Oregon and Alabama. Some winemakers choose barrels that mix American and French oak. Less costly second-hand barrels sourced from countries like Rumania and Hungary. Wood chips flavor less costly wines. Length of time in barrel is also key, requiring constant tasting and evaluation to judge when the wine is ready.
A visit to a cooperage is fascinating. It takes several men to put a barrel together. Staves are cut with surgical precision and fitted with metal rings. The music of hammer blows resound against metal and wood. A cooper dampens a barrel and spins it over a small oak chip fire. A vintner specifies specific woods for compatible components to match specific wines. Then it is charred to a precise degree of light, medium or heavy toast based on a winemaker’s specifications. After toasting, a barrel is redolent with aromas of fresh bread, vanilla, butterscotch and sometimes toasted marshmallow. Since every decision affects a wine’s aromas and flavor, wine is constantly tasted to gauge oak’s impact and evolving layers of complexity.
Time spent in the bottle is the final step in aging. Some wineries will bottle and release a wine quickly, but many wines need more time in the bottle to evolve and develop more desirable characteristics before being released.