Barrels Make the Flavor


In May we finish making barrel purchase decisions for the upcoming vintage. Oak barrels are made to order and made by hand, so the lead time runs several months, especially if they are produced overseas. Oak barrels are an important part of wine production at Chrysalis Vineyards, so a lot of care is taken to ensure the flavor they impart is appropriate to the varieties of grapes we make wine from.

Oak contributes not just “oakiness” to wine, but also tannin and a sweetness on the palate. Tannin gives the wine structure and, in some cases, a sense of richness. The sweetness imparted is a rich, round, mouth-filling character, not sugar-sweetness. The degree to which these characters are imparted to the wine are a reflection of the oak species, growing region, seasoning, and the cooper’s toasting method. When the right pairing of barrel and wine is made, the result is one in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The wine’s fruit is accentuated and the palate has a richness and focus that didn’t exist before. A bad pairing results in a bitter wine that is overcome with oak character.

Some grape varieties are amenable to a wide range of barrels. Chardonnay and vinifera reds (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, et cetera) are two examples. Other varieties need a more careful pairing. And Norton is certainly at the top of that list! For example, Norton is not a particularly tannic grape variety, so any tannin pickup from the barrel is easily noticed. And Norton has intense character that doesn’t integrate as readily with as wide a range of oak as other varieties. One success we’ve had with Norton is pairing it with Virginia oak. Its mild tannin and oak character are complementary to Norton.

We also use French oak and Hungarian oak barrels. While our Virginia oak barrels are allocated only to Norton, these barrels find a home with the other varieties we make here such as Viognier, Albariño, Petit Verdot, Nebbiolo, Tannat, as well as Norton. One of the joys of making wine is experimenting with various coopers and oak growing regions. This is one of the ways in which wine production is more art than science. This year we’ll experiment with putting Norton in barrels traditionally made for white wines, where oak subtlety and elegant tannic structure is emphasized over tannic impact and intense flavors.