Oak barrels have been used since the beginning of time as a storage option for wine. It is strong, lightweight, and it is leakproof. Over time winemakers realized that if they kept the wine in oak barrels it improved the wine.
Here is some basic information for those of us who may be curious about the use of oak barrels and wine.
According to the First Century-AD Roman historian Pliny the Elder, the ancient craft of barrel making was invented by the inhabitants of the Alpine valleys. The term used for the barrel making is called cooperage.
This old world craft is still going strong in today’s new world. In some of the modern wine producing regions there will be a cooperage. Some of them are open to the public and offer guided tours. If you are in a region with a cooperage take the time to visit. I’m sure you will find it interesting.
When the barrels are crafted the staves are charred in varying degrees which will give the wine the toasty or smoky notes or flavors. The winemaker will choose the barrels based on his specific wine-making style.
In today’s modern wine-making the most often used barrels are either American oak or French oak.
- American oak will give a wine more pronounced sweet vanilla or even a coconut quality.
- French oak imparts more subtle flavors.
- Oak can be used for both fermenting wine and aging wine. The results are very different with each process.
- Fermenting wine in oak results in some of the tannins being removed. The yeasts interact with the wood and when the spent yeast cells (or lees) are removed some of the tannin is removed with them.
- Aging wine in oak gives wine its complexity and intensity. The chemical compound that is left behind from the oak is called “phenols” or tannins.
- Not all wines benefit from being in oak. Many lighter style white wines will not fare well in oak and that is where the stainless steel comes into play.
Oak barrels are expensive and the aging process can take several years. Just these two components alone can affect the final cost of the wine.
In traditional Old World wine-making the use of oak, albeit in moderation, has been a constant in traditional Bordeaux and White Burgundy as well as Italian “Riservas” and some Crianzas from Spain’s Rioja. One other interesting fact is that oak is a “requirement” either by law or custom for some classic European wines.