Ask Decanter: Hints of vanilla means American oak?

Is this true that vanilla notes in a wine are a sign it has been aged in American oak? Sarah Jane Evans gives her view to Decanter...

Image: Oak barrels, credit Decanter
Image: Oak barrels, credit Decanter

J Buckley, from Worcester, asks: People tell me that vanilla notes in a wine are a sign it has been aged in American oak. Is this true? Are there any other giveaways?

Sarah Jane Evans MW, for Decanter, replies: When I started my wine studies, I was taught that vanilla meant American oak, and cigar box French oak. As always, it’s a good deal more complicated.

Vanilla, or vanillin, is an aldehyde that is a component of the oak. It is more marked in US oak, but there are plenty of variables in the management, size and age of barrel that will also influence a wine’s aromas and flavour.

The US and France are the classic origins for oak, although Eastern Europe is common. The ageing of the chosen oak and its toasting develop different characters in the oak. So too does the size: a barrel of 225l will have a much stronger effect on the wine than a foudre of 1,000l or more. These classical casks are becoming fashionable again for their subtler influence on the wine. New oak barrels will have a much stronger effect, while a 600l Sherry butt is a blackened, inert cask, which gives no flavour but is ideal for steady ageing in a solera. Fermenting a wine in an oak barrel also gives a rounder texture and finish than simply ageing it in barrel. Then there’s all the oak substitutes – the chips and essences…

And there’s the influence of fashion. Rioja was once the classic European wine aged in US oak, known for its heady, sweet aromas. Today Rioja producers are using French oak or a mix of French and US. That tell-tale cherry fruit and vanilla cream charm is much less common. Not altogether a bad thing, as producers work to reflect their individual terroirs.

Sarah Jane Evans MW is is an award-winning journalist, currently vice-chairman of the Institute of Masters of Wine. She is also Regional co-Chair for Spain at theDecanter World Wine Awards.

Translated by Sylvia Wu / 吴嘉溦

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