What is barrel toasting and how does it affect the taste of Chianti wine?

The juicy fruity flavor of Chianti wine comes from the Sangiovese grapes grown in the Tuscan hills. What you may not know is that barrel toasting also adds to the taste.

It’s a common tradition in Tuscany to age red wine in large oak or chestnut barrels. Long ago, when barrels were used to transport wine, it was discovered that the wood imparted new qualities to the wine. Aging in an oak barrel can help smooth out the edges by softening the tannins of a Chianti wine.

Another accidental discovery was that toasting a barrel by exposing the inside to fire produces some tasty benefits. It’s likely that this started as a way to keep the barrel free of bacteria. Now, it’s part of the science of winemaking.

How are wine barrels toasted?

Toasting a barrel is not unlike making toast. No one likes burnt toast. The goal is to develop some color on the wood, but not to char it.

After the barrel is built, the inside can be toasted over an open flame or using a hand-held torch. Typically, a slow-burning, oak fire is prepared in a toasting pot and then the barrel is placed over it. The temperature is closely monitored to preventing burning or blistering of the wood.

There are various degrees of toasting, from light to heavy. The winemaker decides on the level of the toast in consultation with the cooper (barrel-maker) to achieve the right aroma and taste profile.

The toast acts as a buffer between the raw wood and the alcohol of the wine. It mellows the tannins in the wood and enhances the flavors it brings to the wine.

The tastes from barrel toasting

Flavor additives are not allowed in wine, so barrel toasting is an accepted way to affect the taste of wine. It does this by helping to release vanillin from the cellulose in the wood.

A light toast will lead to vanilla or caramel notes or hints of spices such as cloves and cinnamon. Vanilla and caramel might also be noticed with a medium toasting, as well as honey, coffee, cocoa or toast itself. The heavier the toast, the stronger the flavors. This can impart tastes like vanilla, espresso, smoke or toffee.

Wine that is aged in barrels longer will have more intense flavors from this process.  For example, the Chianti Classico Riserva from the boutique winery, SOLATIONE, is aged in small barrels for 18 months. This gives it fine tannins and delicious hints of vanilla.

Join us for a glass (or two) on one of our unique Chianti wine tours. We’ll drink a toast to barrel toasting!