“Karen, I know the oak barrels used for wine get toasted. But why?” — Frank M., (Los Angeles, California)
Hi Frank. Barrels are toasted for two main reasons. First, heating the wood makes it pliable so that the staves (strips of wood) can be bent into shape. Second, toasting leads to desirable flavors in the wood. As the fire heats the barrels, natural carbohydrates in the wood are caramelized. This brings out compounds like vanillin, which tastes like vanilla, and ones that taste like nutmeg, cinnamon, coffee, and other flavors. As a wine ages in a toasted barrel, it picks up hints of these flavors. Winemakers can order barrels at different levels of toast from light to heavy.