Ask Wine Wizard

Barrel Alternatives: Matching quality grapes with oak


William Schultz — Windsor, California asks,


I made two barrels of Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon this year, and the barrels are pretty old, so I don’t think I’ll get a lot of oak aroma or flavor out of them. I really don’t want to spend the $2,000 (!) to buy a new barrel and am wondering if you could recommend how I can get some good aging oak on the wine in a way that’s not cheap tasting but would be appropriate to do the grapes the credit they deserve. I got the fruit from a buddy who supplies local famous wineries and I’d like to do the wine justice . . . just not thousands of dollars worth, if you get my meaning.

Hey, I see you, I hear you, and I’m so here for you! The average price for a French oak barrel has really become very high in the last couple of years (decades?) and winemaking is an expensive enough undertaking without loading all of that up-front cost into it. A new French barrel can easily cost over $2,000 and, as far as the straight-up oaky aromas and flavors are concerned, only have about three- or four-years’ life in them before they become relatively neutral storage vessels. As an old friend of mine would wryly sniff, “A used barrel is merely medieval Tupperware.” I don’t agree with him 100% but it is indeed true that the hint of vanilla and that kiss of toasty spiciness we love in a well-made wine becomes increasingly difficult to attain as a barrel gets older. While even neutral barrels provide a quality-enhancing dynamic aging environment where tiny bits of oxygen are allowed ingress over time, the aroma and flavor compounds we associate with top-quality wines, especially Cabernet Sauvignon, require at least a small amount of
Response by Alison Crowe.