'Neutral oak' barrels don't add flavor, but soften wine

Q: I often hear the term "neutral oak" being used by winemakers. What are they talking about?

A: When wine is fermented and/or aged in oak barrels, it will pick up flavors from the wood. Most commonly, oak barrels give a powerful vanilla flavor, which nicely accents many white and red wines. Barrels may also be toasted (literally charred) to varying degrees, and that imparts smoky or toasty flavors to the wine.

However, wines leach the flavors out of barrels very quickly. After the first year of use, a barrel loses much of its flavoring ability. After three years, it is considered a neutral barrel. Wines may still be fermented or aged in such barrels, which allow the slow introduction of oxygen into the wine. Such aging tends to soften wines, particularly tannic wines, without adding any extra flavors. For certain styles of wine it is the preferred technique. Another advantage: Neutral barrels also cost just a fraction of new oak barrels, which now run as high as $850 each.

Paul Gregutt answers questions weekly in the Wine section. E-mail: wine@seattletimes.com