By Gordon and Jean Leidner
Wine and oak have had a loving relationship for centuries. Why is this? What is so magical about aging wine in oak as opposed to some other type of wood or material? What special qualities do oak barrels give to wine? Our curiosity about this uncovered some interesting answers.
A Little History
First, there is a fascinating history about how wine came to be aged in oak barrels. Long ago (centuries before Christ) wine was stored and transported in clay pots. These provided cheap, neutral containers, but their fragility made them terrible vessels for transportation. (“Sorry about that, Chief. Looks like we dropped another clay cask of your most expensive wine!”)
Wine merchants began using durable wooden barrels, and by the second century, AD these became the preferred mode of transporting wine.
Oak Barrels Season Wine
Over the centuries, many types of wood were used for aging and storing wine. These included palm wood, pine, chestnut, acacia, and redwood. While experimenting with different woods, winemakers discovered that oak barrels coaxed out a complexity of texture, flavor and aroma in wine that would otherwise have been missing. Vintners happily realized that oak barrels season wine in much the same way that spices season food.
Because wood is porous, a small amount of oxygen mixes with the wine. This softens the tannins, giving wine a silkier, richer texture, or mouthfeel. The aroma and flavors released by oak can vary depending on the type of oak (almost always French or American), whether and to what degree the barrels have been toasted (charred by burning the interior) and how long the wine remains in the barrel.
So, what are these wonderful flavors and aromas that oak barrels pass on to wine? The most familiar are vanilla, tobacco, caramel, coconut, cinnamon, clove, smoke, chocolate, toffee, almond, and – go figure – oak! Oak barreled white wines tend to taste and smell like butter, vanilla, clove, coconut, and nutmeg. (My mouth is starting to water.)
Even the color of wine is affected by oak barreling. White wines take on a deeper, more golden hue. Red wines become darker, too.
As one might guess, a new barrel takes less time to enhance the wine’s character. A familiar comparison would be the way a new tea bag reacts with hot water. It only takes a few minutes to get a strong cup of tea when the bag is new, but if you re-use the bag, it will need to be left in the water longer to achieve the same result.
Varieties That Benefit Most
Which varieties of wine benefit most from barrel aging? Pinot Grigio, Pinot Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, and, most notably, Chardonnay are white wines that are nicely influenced by oak. As far as reds, a better question may be, “which varieties are not benefited by oak?” Very few. However, some winemakers prefer to leave their red wines unoaked, believing that this will highlight the natural, fruity flavor.
Because oak barrels are expensive (typically $300-$800/barrel), winemakers today are on the lookout for cheaper methods to introduce oak into their wine. Two ways to accomplish this are to add small oak chips or bolted-in barrel staves to stainless steel tanks. If you see an inexpensive wine that boasts “oaked” without the word “barreled” on the label, chances are they used one of these cost-cutting techniques.
Finally, what about all those fruity flavors in wine, such as cherry, blackberry, and grapefruit? Do the winemakers simply drop in a few cherries or pour in some grapefruit juice? Well, no…but that, friends, is another story. In the meantime, open a bottle of “well oaked” wine and let the love affair continue. Cheers!
Image courtesy of Stoonn/FreeDigitalPhotos.net
If you want to know which wines YOU will like best, download the FREE iPhone app Wine4.Me. Tell it what wines you know you like and get your own personalized rankings of best-selling, widely available wines in the US.
Gordon and Jean Leidner have been wine enthusiasts for years. They enjoy visiting wineries, hosting wine parties, and have even dabbled in making wine from kits. Gordon has been a history buff for most of his life, and blogs at his website Great American History.