The long relationship of wine with oak barrels is an interesting one. Oak barrels have been used as a part of the fermentation and the aging of wine for centuries. Oak barrels are used to add flavour to many wines.
The types of wines used with oak barrels
The red wines that tend to benefit most from the use of oak barrels include Sauvignon, Syrah, Pinot Noir, Tempranillo, Nebbiolo, Cabernet, Zinfandel, Chianti, Merlot and Pinotage. White wines that may benefit from oak barrels include Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Grigio.
Reasons to use Oak Wine Barrels
Oak wine barrels offer flavor as well as aromatic support for the wine and add a fuller, richer impression and complexity. For the nose, oak wine barrels help to accentuate the aromas centered around spices, such as clove, nutmeg, cinnamon, vanilla and allspice that are derived from the time the wine spends in the oak wine barrels. Benefits for the palate brought about by oak wine barrels include the rich caramel, vanilla, coconut, clove, cinnamon, tea, smoke, toffee, mocha and butter flavors.
Oak Wine Barrels and Wine
Typically, oak wine barrels hold 59 to 60 gallons, depending on the type of barrel. Bordeau barrels, known as barriques will hold 225 liters which translates to 59 gallons while Burgandy barrels hold 60 gallons, which is 228 liters. As the oak is naturally porous, time allows some evaporation to take place, and the barrel generally loses five gallons during its aging process. This evaporation process can intensify the aromatics and flavor profile of the wine. The oak used to make oak wine barrels is influenced by several factors. These include where the barrel was made, the regional variations that take place in oak obtained from different forests, the methods of drying and toasting and standard practices of the cooperage making the barrel.
Types of Wood Used in Oak Wine Barrels
The two most common types of oak wine barrels used in wine-making include those of American Oak and those of French Oak. However, certain winemakers prefer those of Hungarian or Slovenian origin. When compared to French oak barrels, American ones have a wider grain, fewer wood tannins and are less expensive. They tend to make a larger influence on the flavor and aromatic components of the wine, creating a sweet palate with vanilla nuances. French oak is considered the gold standard and have tighter grains while providing more tannins, having less influence of flavor concentrations and aromatics that the American oak barrels, while increasing the palate presence and complexity.
53 Gallon size American oak wine barrels cost about $300 each, while French oak doubles that price. This means that wineries are making a significant financial investment in barrels and can increase the cost of wine aged in new oak. Many winemakers will stagger new barrels into their process to reduce costs for both the winery and the consumer.
Why Some Winemakers Insist on New Oak
The newer the wine barrel, the more concentrated the influence of the oak on the wine. As the oak wine barrels grow older, they have less flavor to impart to the wine being aged. It may be compared to a tea bag, that upon initial use imparts full flavor to the cup of tea, but with each reuse imparts less flavor to the cup. With oak wine barrels, this means that once the barrel has been used for four or five times it becomes little more than a holding tank, which imparts little flavor to the wine being stored in the barrel. Often consumers may note wines stating that one third of the wine was aged in new oak wine barrels to increase complexity and impart flavor. This indicates that 2/3 of the wine was aged in older oak and the barrels were blended before bottling. While this saves on the cost of barrels, and adds some oak character, it does not add the full character found in wines aged in all new oak wine barrels.
Toasting (Charring) Oak
Once the type of wood is selected, the winemaker will choose the degree of toasting (or charring) appropriate for the style of wine. Barrels can be toasted to a light, medium or heavy degree. The lighter toast retains more of the oak-based character, while heavier toasting increases the smoky and oaky nuances of the wine. Increasing the toasting can effectively increase the influence on the aroma, color, flavor and overall style of the wine.
The use of Oak Chips in Wine
Some winemakers avoid use of any oak wine barrels by using oak chips for seasoning wine. The use of chips can cut costs dramatically and the chips can be used in either the fermentation or aging stages of winemaking. Oak chips are available in several flavors and forms and speed up the process of adding oak flavoring as there are higher concentrations of oak and additional surface are in contact with the liquid. The oak chips are enclosed in a mesh sack and steeped like a tea bag in the tank. The use of oak chips have only been legally permitted in Old World wine-making processes since 2006.
Oak wine barrels play a pivotal role in the process of wine-making for many wind blends and flavors. However one of the best ways to understand the influence of oak wine barrels it with a side-by-side wine tasting and comparison. Chardonnay is a good choice as mane winemakers use oak to bring out the buttery, toasty notes that consumers expect. Purchase a bottle of well-oaked Chardonnay along with an unoaked or naked Chardonnay for a side by side taste test. With the oaked version you should not the dominant influences of the oak in toasted smoky full flavored buttery finish. With the naked Chardonnay, you will see the fruit dominate, with the flavors of peach, pear, apple or if sourced from a warmer region, tropical fruit. Oak wine barrels can add a depth of flavor that many enjoy.