Barreled Over by Big Wines

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With the holidays in full swing, it's time to get serious about wine — something I regard as recompense for spending ages indoors with people I love dearly but who live in inconvenient parts of the country and tend to have very enthusiastic dogs.

And yet I'm hopeless at it. My experience with wine involves tiptoeing through rack upon rack of confusingly organized bottles, praying that my bag doesn't knock over anything behind me while I look for some ideal intersection of price, label artwork, and name unpronounceability.

I used to read the descriptions printed on little squares of paper and taped to the shelves. But after several years I realized that all wines score between 87 and 92, and that pretty much any flavor is desirable as long as it isn't grape. The less edible-sounding, the better: Bring on the vanilla, earth, leather, oak, pepper, orange peel, menthol, musk, and—no, I'm not kidding—farm yard.

So imagine my surprise to learn that many of these flavors come not from the pressed grapes but from the barrels they were stored in before bottling. And that owing to the high price of barrels, many high-volume winemakers skip the barrel altogether, opting instead to dunk bags of oak chips into their stainless-steel vats.

What sounds at first like an unconscionable shortcut starts to make sense when you look at the numbers. A prized, 60-gallon French-oak barrel can run winemakers $1,000. Do the math: the American wine industry produced 3 billion liters, or 13 million barrels' worth, this year. Worse, the best barrels are made from oaks more than a century old (according to Jancis Robinson), and lose much of their flavor after their first use.

Good oak barrels affect wine in a few crucial ways. They help moderate the tannins that make wine astringent, reduce the taste of grapes, and intensify the color. They let in oxygen, which helps stabilize the wine while it's young (even though oxygen destroys wine once it's bottled). And they impart many of those unexpected flavors you read about in tasting notes. Some (vanilla and coconut, for example) come straight from the oak. Caramelized flavors come from the inside surface of the barrel, which is burned or "toasted" during building. Still other flavors appear when molecules from the oak react with complex sugars from the grapes to produce new aromatic compounds.

Industrial-scale winemakers realized they could do much the same thing by suspending bits of oak in their wine as it ferments. It's cheaper as well as faster. Instead of keeping wine in a barrel for a year while it develops, oak chips can infuse a wine with the same compounds in a matter of weeks. And presumably, winemakers can now tinker with their oak-chip concoctions to get the flavors they most want.

I understand the rationale, and yet now I have this disturbing mental image of my wine being invaded by those bags of potpourri that perfume the bathrooms of my excessively neat relatives. Is that how all of these $12 wines come to be bursting with vanilla and leather? Is my favorite bottle of red, at heart, any different from a Yankee Candle? I think I'm being cultured, but am I really drinking some overspiced, oenological version of instant ramen soup?

Note: This post was written with the aid of a lovely 2004 Côte du Rhône syrah-grenache. The E.U. only began allowing so-called "oak alternatives" in 2006, so presumably this one had actually spent some time in a barrel.

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