Now there’s a lot of information available about oak and barrels and ageing on the internet, but given we are the Spanish Wine Experience, and given that Spain just loves throwing wine into oak barrels, we thought it correct and timely to chime in with our two cents.

History

When we look at the Ancient Greeks and Romans we notice that those famous oak barrels weren’t present. In their place what we get are clay amphorae. This was the vessel of choice for both the wines and oils of the Empire. Fortunately we have a happy accident of the Romans deciding to push their reach to the north of Europe.

When they arrived in France they encountered the Gauls, beer drinkers through and through. And beer, that beautiful golden liquor of the north, is kept and transported…in barrels, often oak ones. Initially the Romans were enthralled by its strength compared to the more brittle clay amphorae and the fact that the tight grain was very waterproof. Then you had the roll-ability of them; much easier to move around. Also there was the geographical fact that the forests of continental Europe were teeming with oak trees.

The poetic moment was when, after hauling their wine around in barrels for however long, and at the end of a hard day’s empiring, they went for a glass of red wine and noticed the flavours and aromas had improved and the drink had become more palatable. In less than a couple of centuries, wooden barrels were the new modus operandi for winemaking.

Barrels, chips and staves.

Barrels

Barrels are king, but they are expensive (900-2000$ per item). 100,000 – 200,000 new barrels are sold each year just in North America so you can imagine how much money is flying about. It’s a big business and often one of the main expenditures for a winery.

Oak flavours are extracted better from trees with a tight grain – when the rings are close together – and this happens more in cooler climates: France (Tronçais, Vosges, Nevers) Hungary and Croatia, USA (Minnesota, Missouri, Wisconsin, Iowa). This then gives us ‘American Oak’, ‘French Oak’, etc.

A cooperage will cut, bind, toast (the level according to the intensity of the flavour the winemaker wants the wood to impart) and sell on barrels of different sizes. The ‘classic’ barrel for wine ageing is the 225L ‘Bordeaux’ or 228L ‘Burgundy’ size. Foudres, technically not ‘barrels’, can start at 2000L and reach 12,000L! But for ageing and flavour-adding you don’t want too large a barrel as the aromas will dissipate too much.

Chips and Staves (and beans and blocks)

A much cheaper, but less elegant and less well-regarded, method is to add something oaky to the fermenting wine while it’s in the stainless steel tank. Almost like adding a teabag to a pot of hot water or a spice bag for mulled wine. Though this method is cheaper and easier and can give a bit of aromatic lift to a cheap wine, it will never achieve the subtlety or elegance of leaving your wine in barrels.

Fermentation vs Ageing

Most wines are fermented – whether just the clear filtered juice of white wine or the juice + skins combo of red wines – in huge stainless steel tanks. This is essentially the process of making young wine: taking the must, adding temperature and yeast and letting the sugar turn to alcohol. Then, with your resulting booze, the winemaker may choose to fling it in a barrel and let magic happen. Reds are usually fermented in steel, as the temperature is easier to control and, to be frank, they’re also easier to clean.

Some wines are actually fermented in the barrel instead or as well as stainless steel. This will add oak aromas of course, but will also affect the structure of the wine, making them rounder, creamier and fuller. This is because the oak will allow tiny amounts of oxygen in and, particularly with whites, the wine will also be in contact with the lees (dead yeast cells and ‘bits’) that will add a yeasty breadiness. Not many wines are fermented in this way. It is very much a stylistic rather than necessary technique.

Now ageing is a different. Spain bloody loves ageing. At the turn of the 19th century an aphid-like pest called phylloxera ravaged European – particularly French – vineyards, decimating the land. It was the fault of Victorian botanists bringing American rootstocks – laden with the pest – over to Europe. With far fewer vines the Bordeaux winemakers went for help to La Rioja. The Riojans gave them wine and in return the Bordelaise left the concept of oak barrel ageing.

Your finished wine is left in a barrel and is monitored throughout its dormancy; making sure the wines are balanced as they age by sampling and blending.

The age and level of toasting of the barrel will affect your wine as it sleeps. The more heavy the toasting, the more spice and flavour imbued into the wine. The newer the barrel, the more intense the flavour. After four uses (4 years) the barrels stop imparting flavours and are called neutral. Then they are used for storage – which can still help mellow out wines and soften them.

American vs French vs Misc

There’s a lot of marketing and chat surrounding the different types of oak used in the wine industry. The reason for this is they affect the boozy juice in different ways. In short:

French Oak: generally more subtle in the imparting of flavours; often of spice, pepper and wood. Ideal with lighter, defter wines like Pinot Noir.

American Oak: imparts a lot of obvious flavour. Often those such as dill, vanilla and coconut (enter the famous ‘vanilla bomb Chardonnays’ of old).

Hungarian/Eastern European Oak: like a beefier version of French. Goes well with big wines like Malbec or Petit Verdot; attributing nutty rich and creamy aromas to the heftier tannic wines.

French oak is by far the most expensive though; so pure economics can often be an obvious consideration.

So what is the barrel actually doing?

Three main things are happening.

  1. Adding the previously mentioned flavours and aromas. Phenols – flavour compounds – in the wood interact with the wine.
      1. Vanillan – vanilla.
      2. Syringaldehyde – vanilla-ishness.
      3. Oak lactone – woody, coconut, herby notes.
      4. Furfural – dried fruits, roasted nuts, burned sugar/caramel.
      5. Guaiacol – burned flavours.
      6. (Iso)Eugenol – spices, smokiness, cloves.
      7. TOASTING – can vary the degree of toffee and mocha notes.
  2. It provides a stable, waterproof environment for the wine to go through certain processes such as malolactic fermentation and lees contact.
  3. The barrel allows a very slow ingress of oxygen.
      1. Allows concentration of flavour and aroma compounds via the precipitation of the phenols.
      2. Small amount of oxygen also help to soften tannins.

And what are the rules in Spain?

Jóven – ‘young’ wine. No ageing in oak (but maybe a sneaky month or two to make it drinkable).

Roble – ‘oak’ wine. An unofficial wine usually denoting a ‘few’ months 3-6 in oak.

Crianza – minimum total ageing of 24 months – 6 of which must have been in oak. In La Rioja, Navarra and Ribera del Duero the minimum is 12 months in oak.

Reserva – minimum total ageing of 36 months – 12 of which must have been in oak.

Gran Reserva – minimum total ageing of 5 years – 18 months of which must have been in oak. In La Rioja, Navarra and Ribera del Duero the minimum is 24 months in oak.

So, as the owner of Bodegas Zifar in the Ribera del Duero once told me years ago, “barrels and oak ageing is not necessarily needed for a wine, but imagine the winemaker is a chef, then the barrels are the spices he can add to tweak his dish at the end and make it more complex and flavourful”. And I think that about sums up the beauty of it.


I drink too much. I know this. My poor long-suffering liver knows this. Even observers both close and distant have noticed this. It’s the curse of a) being obsessed with wine, b) working in the world of wine and c) living in a country where my obsession is both high quality, readily accessible and cheap. It doesn’t help that I produce drinking videos, write blogs about booze and, clearly, have a podcast/blog dedicated to wine. But I’m no alcoholic.

I have my own rules of drinking:

  1. I never drink at home alone – unless the situation is drastic and for whatever the reason I’m having the worst day imaginable.
  2. I won’t drink for drinking’s sake – there needs to be at least some semblance of a point (and that can be as light as a sunny afternoon on a terrace).
  3. I don’t drink until I’m blind drunk and I regret the rare time’s it has happened.
  4. I try not to mix. If I’m on wine, it’s wine. If gin and tonic, then gin it is.

This got me thinking about the differences between the drinking cultures of my two homes – UK, the home of the past and Spain, the home of the now. I loved my time in Russia, but to start talking about the drinking culture there, well, we’d be here all day. I thought it would be interesting to look at the general ways the two countries drink, gazing through my own very personal and fuzzy lens.

UK

This, logically, was my first exposure to drinking. I shall precede this by saying that I never got drunk until I was 18 years old and in the first year of university.

I was never interested in drinking alcohol – I may have had the odd Bacardi Breezer at my friend Ollie’s house as a teenager – but just looking at the culture around me, what it did to people, was enough to put me off.

In the UK people – and of course I am painting with wildly broad brushstrokes here – seemed to be drinking to escape, forget, release, unleash, as opposed to really enjoying themselves. Every Friday and Saturday night, and nothing has changed, from the largest cities to the smallest towns – in my case Thames town Maidenhead – people could be seen at 1am, blind drunk; shouting, vomiting, fighting, weeping, having their backs rubbed as they sat on the curb, talking to the owners of the kebab shop as they clumsily shovelled low-grade meat and chips into their mouths, hollering at girls, hollering back at the boys.

It seemed, it seems, that a weekend evening is a failure unless you finish wobbling around with your cerebral faculties relegated to being a confused, angry or emotional gloop sloshing around your head.

I drank at university of course, but within a year had found my limits and would rarely return to the point where I wasn’t at least mostly in control of my senses.

In the second year I started to get into Port and crappy off-dry rosés. Classic gateway wines.

In the third year – abroad in Spain and Russia – I had got into beer and spirits and no longer liked sweet drinks.

In the fourth year I found both tea, coffee and wine to my taste. It became more about going to the pubs with friends and drinking local Somerset ales and ciders and being in good company. Very seldom were the times we could be bothered to go to a club or disco: noise, drunk people and dancing. The opposite of a good time.

Regarding wine, often the problem with the UK is two-fold:

  1. The way we drink – getting blitzed at the weekend. The idea of having a relaxed glass of wine for lunch is almost unimaginable.
  2. The price – the simple fact is that a lot of alcohol, especially wine, is quite expensive. So Mon-Thurs you take your foot off the gas, and then slam it down hard at the weekend to reward yourself.

Remember I’m looking at this through my not-quite-thirty-years-old goggles. My parents, indeed a lot of middle-aged and up people, tend to be more Mediterranean in their consumption.

Spain

Now, in the same way that not everyone is always going out and getting wasted in the UK, not everyone in Spain is an angel that never gets drunk. My goodness they do. But the tone is different.

I initially thought I was in paradise when I arrived in Madrid, for the simple reason that I could get bottles of very drinkable wines for the price of a glass of it in the UK. Hell, I could buy a litre of wine, though less palatable, for a euro. What was this alcoholic wizardry? I was young, surrounded by expats – teachers – and we drank. We had house parties, went out on the weekends and that was that. Cheap booze.

Quickly, via experiences as varied as eating arroz con bogavante (lobster stewed in rice) served with a crisp Martín Codax albariño in Guadalajara, a visit to Viña Tondonia in La Rioja where I was lucky to befriend the family – and to this day still receive a Christmas card from them, and drinking cold porcelain cups of Ribeiro wine in A Coruña with plates of steaming mussels, I started to love wine the way the Spanish did.

It all came down to interest and food culture. This was a country where the people drank their wine when they ate – indeed the Ministry of Agriculture officially recognises wine as a ‘food stuff’ and not a ‘booze’.

This was a country where on a Friday night if someone said ‘fancy grabbing a drink’ it didn’t mean ‘fancy getting blind drunk and vomiting in a policeman’s hat?’ It meant let’s have a drink with a nibble to go with it.

This was a country where restaurants, bars, clubs, were all open later. A place were there was no stress and social pressure to pound drinks and get as much booze in you before the inevitable ‘Last orders!’ was yelled to the ding dong of the pub bell. Here you had another drink if you wanted one, not ordering one to boost your level of inebriation.

This was a country were people got drunk, but as a choice or a bi-product of a nice time with friends. It wasn’t the aim of the night. And in over 7 years of living here, none of my friends have ever said ‘let’s get wasted’ and genuinely meant it.

It is a happier, less stressful, cheaper, tastier, slower, more social, amiable, and gratifying way of drinking. And yes, occasionally to the point where the act of walking in a straight line seems the most monumental complicated thing. And that’s how I prefer it.

Salud!


If you come to Madrid, which of course, we hope you do. If you go into a modern or classic little Spanish tapas bar, which of course, we hope you do. And if you order a wine, which of course, you should, you’ll often have limited options. You ask for a vino tinto, and will almost always be given a Tempranillo from Rioja – although these days it is common to be offered a Ribera del Duero. Ask for a vino blanco, and you’ll be proffered a goblet of Verdejo from Rueda – though, again, sometimes Albariño from Rías Baixas makes an appearance.

Across most of Castille – both Castilla y León and La Mancha – and Madrid, Extremadura, and Andalucía the most common white wine is always Verdejo. Go most other places and that exotically named grape is still there, accompanied with her productive little region of Rueda. It’s the most well-known grape and region pairing that no-one has heard of!

So today it’s time to meet Verdejo: Spain’s quiet signature grape.

The Grape:

  • The juicy green gapes were brought to Spain probably sometime in the 11th century by the Mozarabs coming from the north of Africa.
  • The first vines were planted in the small but sensationally productive region of Rueda, 175km northwest of Madrid. There are fewer than 60 bodegas in the area, but the grape has become synonymous with the area. Pure terroir.
  • It seems to be the daughter of Savagnin and Castellana Blanca.
  • The name stems from the Spanish for green, verde. The viticultural version of ‘say what you see’ as they are famed for their green-blue bloom.
  • In 2010, Australia got a taste for the grape and started to plant it.
  • The grape is ideally suited to the poor soils and harsh environment present in Rueda; a region that can drop 25 degrees celsius at nighttime.
  • The climate of the meseta is also handy, because Verdejo has a high susceptibility to Powdery mildew fungal disease. The complete dryness doesn’t allow the humidity-loving growth of the fungus.
  • It’s only really in the last 40-odd years that Verdejo from Rueda has come into its own. For a long time it was used in Spain to produce a strong Sherry-like wine.
  • It wasn’t until 70s, with the Rioja giant Marqués de Riscal seeing its potential, that Verdejo began to be used to make fresh and crisp still wines.
  • It’s a fairly venerable Spanish denominación de origen, formed in 1980.
  • The grapes, like many in hot climates, are generally harvested at night. The cooler temperatures will protect the grapes and mean they won’t start to oxidise.
  • As per usual, Verdejo has myriad other names, though generally they are not common but they are wonderful to look at: boto de gall, botón de gallo blanco, cepa de madrigal, gouvelo, verdal del país, verdeja, verdeja blanca.

The Wines:

  • Verdejo as a wine, especially when showing its full expression in Rueda, is famed for its slightly green-tinted straw colour and aromatic and almost herbaceous aroma.
  • It’s not dissimilar to Sauvignon Blanc or a big Pinot Gris. Some laurel, bitter almonds, lemons and citrus are all found on the nose. The palate is smooth and quite full and has sharp acidity.
  • Be aware Verdejo can be rather unappealing if not served chilled enough, sometimes too alcoholic and petrolly. But when chilled correctly is an utter delight.
  • Verdejo can take to ageing quite well, turning almost nutty. That being said, it is not overly common; many producers believing that you lose the intrinsic qualities that Verdejo is good for.
  • The grape, due to the similarity of the vines and name, is sometimes confused with Verdelho. They are not the same. And that’s that.
  • Verdejo is often mixed with Sauvignon Blanc or Macabeo.
  • Due to the acidity of the wines, Verdejo is almost the perfect food pairing white wine.
    • It goes very well with seafood and shellfish.
    • Salty or matured food like strong cheeses pair brilliantly.
    • Verdejo also can go toe to toe with ‘exotic’ food like Thai or Chinese and even spicy food – though, as stated prior, make sure it’s well-chilled!
  • The wines, to be called Rueda Verdejo must be 85% Verdejo. Usually, to show it off fully, producers are more likely to produce 100% wines.
  • Despite finding its spiritual home in Rueda, the largest planting of the grape is actually in Extremadura followed by Castilla La Mancha.

So, even though the boozing populace of Madrid may either a) be bored of Verdejo these days or b) take it for granted, there is no doubting or ignoring the fact that this little green juice bomb has been carrying Spain’s greatest cities, its most famous socialites, its hardy workers and its tiniest villages, into various states of inebriation for centuries.

Verdejo (and Rueda) are owed a debt of soused thanks from a lot of Spain. When all else fails and the cabinets and shelves are running dry, there’s always Verdejo, smiling down at you and saying ‘Hola, pop me in the fridge a while and then drink me!’