Putting the Oak in Your Risotto: Why Your Wine Tastes the Way it Does

Oak-ageing for wine can now be calibrated scientifically with a new measurement of “tannic potential” of oak barrels.  In order to demonstrate how different barrels can alter the taste, the researcher Jean Charles Vicard, owner of the barrel-making brand Esprit de Dryades, enlisted a Michelin-starred chef to use tiny amounts of different barrel woods as spices in cooking.


            In the 1990s, oaked wines were very fashionable — but not everyone loved them. However, no one will deny the important role of wood, especially in small quantities, in the making of a good wine. It’s a bit naïve to take the wine (or rather, the grape juice) and throw it in a barrique, trusting that this tool can do wonders by itself.  That’s why it is so important to choose the right type of wood and the right level of toasting (the insides of wine barrels are literally “toasted” over a fire). To make the best choices for their wines, most producers rely on past experience, the recommendations of consultants (or vendors of barrels), and a bit of research.  But until now there was no scientific system for knowing in advance what the taste of the wine would be at the end of its aging in wood.

Today this method exists, and it’s based on the tannic potential of the wooden barrels. Jean Charles Vicard is an avid researcher who devoted years to the study of wood (he collaborates with the LEC, the oenological laboratory in Cognac, and with INRA, the French National Institute for Agricultural Research); he has analyzed more than 300 different varieties of wood. During a meeting with some of the most famous Italian producers (among them Charrere, Dal Forno and Pieropan) he talked about his research and results:

“The tannin content of the wood has great influence on the final result of the operation of toasting,” he explained. “The right dose of the ‘cooking time’ of the wood used for the barrique and the temperature of the fire are the elements needed to get a defined flavor and tannic profile. By handling these two fundamental parameters, we are able to extract the organoleptic qualities we need from the oak.”


            And now comes the fun part. In order to understand the final effect that a high tannic potential can give a wine (rather than medium or low tannic potential, or a mixture of the three) Vicard sought the cooperation of Thierry Verrat, the famous Michelin-starred chef and cookbook author, who spent over 20 years running the restaurant La Ribaudière near Cognac, France. Verrat has shown us that it is possible to do, literally, a “tasting of wood.”  Vicard brought the chef to a restaurant in Northern Italy, where we met.

“Usually you have to wait a year at least to determine the effect of aging in barriques,” the chef told us.  “But Vicard told me that to make people aware of the impact that a high (or a low) tannic potential can result in a wine, we had only a few minutes, just long enough for a presentation like this. “So I thought I would treat the different types of oak as if they were… spices,” he said. “Yes, exactly like black pepper or cinnamon. In this way it was possible to reproduce the complexity of the taste that we normally find in a good wine.”

The challenge was to find a balanced placement of these “powders of woods”(scraped from barrels with different tannic potentials) throughout a dinner menu.  Chef Vicard ably demonstrated this with his own creativity along with the cooperation of the excellent kitchen staff of the Villa de Winckels Restaurant in Tregnago, Verona. Thus, on the table we had dishes like “Bon Bon in French Oak,”  “Bavarian of Monte Veronese Cheese with Vinaigrette and Crumbs of American Oak.” “Risotto with Porcini Mushrooms and Crispy Potatoes Cooked with French Oak,” “Veal Shank with Mashed Potatoes with Lightly Toasted American Oak” and “Panna Cotta with High Potential Tannic Oak.” All the food was delicious, and  the smell of smoke – in its different variations – was perfect. The wines we drank were whites and reds by Dal Forno, Charrere, Pieropan and others — all wine producers who have been using barriques made by Esprit de Dryades.

“Tannins, flavours, wine: this is not a random trio,” said Constantine Charrere, who offered two different vintages of his renowned and award-winning Chardonnay “Les Cretes” for the dinner. “Nowadays, with technology you can pre-determine each of these elements. Once, we could choose the type of barrels we wanted to use only by specifying the location of the oak trees: they came from the Allier forest, or from the Tronçais or from some other European or American forest. Now, we know that there are trees with different tannic potentials even within the same forest because the microclimate or soil may be different; in nature there is incredible variability. For this reason, in order to make a fine wine there must also be a collaboration between the winemaker and the tonnellerie [barrel-maker]”.


            It was an amazing experience for me to have some of the most famous Italian wine producers sitting at the same table. Their wines are very different — a white wine made with an international grape like chardonnay from Val d’Aosta, an important red wine from dried native grapes like Amarone della Valpolicella, etc. Now I understand what they have discovered in common: their wines are aged in the special barrels and barriques from Esprit de Dryades, where each of them is crafted with the exact tannic potential decided by the producer. Thus each barrique is different, “tailor made” for a specific winery.

In addition to Charrere, Dal Forno and Pieropan, around the world there are less than 100 others that work with this system; some of them are equally famous, but Jean Charles Vicard and his Italian colleague Joseph Nicastro didn’t want to reveal names. It doesn’t matter, anyway. What matters, is that when you enjoy a wine, when you find one that is particularly delicious, you are aware that in it there it contains not only a huge amount of work, history and passion, but also of strong scientific knowledge.

[author] [author_image timthumb=’on’]http://palatepress.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/02/162f729-e1266674226608.jpg[/author_image] [author_info]Elisabetta Tosi is a freelance wine journalist and wine blogger. She lives in Valpolicella, where the famous red wines Amarone, Ripasso, and Recioto are produced. Professionally, she serves as a web-consultant for wineries, and in her free time writes books about Italian wines. She is also a contributor to Vino Pigro.[/author_info] [/author]