TIP: When a wine label mentions it’s coopers (barrel makers) or special barrels, the more interesting it will taste and it will likely cost a bit more. (Barrels are expensive.)
Here’s some clues to using barrel information to better understand wine and selecting ones that you might like. The first clue is whether barrels are listed on the label/notes at all, the label might say unoaked Chardonnay or stainless steel tanks. You might find that your palette really likes unoaked wines so you seek those out and eventually you discover that your favorite grape (say Sauvignon Blanc) is usually made in stainless steel. (I’ll be writing about a spectacular wine soon that is made in special cement tanks.)
Another clue is whether the label/tasting notes mentions oak but no other information. I tasted a red wine once with a winemaker who insisted that the wine was not barrel-aged. I had no doubt that it had seen oak. He eventually admitted that some oak staves had been added. Staves are part of the barrel. They are put in the wine as it processes to add flavor. Oak chips are another option. Many value wines use this technique to keep costs down. It’s not easy to make an A+ wine using these techniques.
I find barrel choices extremely important to the taste of the wine. Plenty of winemakers get grapes from vineyards that are known winners, but when they can’t afford to use great barrels (a common problem), the true potential of the wine is undermined and it’s noticeable.
Boutique winemakers or small lot releases tend to emphasize coopers and barrels in their tasting notes. I noticed recently that one of my favorite Pinot Noir producers, James MacPhail, lists more barrels and details about the coopers than most winemakers. One wine on his current list, he used fourteen different coopers. For his 2010 Chardonnay, he used three coopers–all hand crafted barrels.
When you go wine tasting, especially a barrel-tasting weekend, tasting staff usually provide a primer about the barrels country of origin, France, America, Hungary, etc., and define the purpose of using neutral, new and aged oak. Thinking about the barrels and how they affect the wine is great way to understand why a wine tastes a certain way.