Did you know that over 900 million gallons of wine are drunk every year in the United States?
There’s no doubt that we’re a country of wine-lovers. However, most of us know extremely little about the winemaking process before it ends up in our stores.
When we think of wine, most people think of the classic 750ml bottle of red or white wine.
Most wine-drinkers have different techniques for choosing wines. Whether it’s the country or region of origin or how enticing the description on the label is.
And yet, for many wine-enthusiasts, it’s impossible to separate the wine and the aging process. Most of the finest and most expensive wines in the world are oak barrel wines.
The oak aged wines have a distinctive flavor that drastically alters the taste and experience of drinking the wine. Keep reading to find out everything you need to know about the oak barrel wines.
Why Oak Barrels?
Since the 1600s and up until relatively recently wine was always stored and sold in wooden barrels. This is far from the glass bottles with which we have become familiar.
Nowadays, there are many different materials used for storing and aging wine. Winemakers have used everything from steel to plastic, and even cement to store wine.
This is because it’s no longer necessary to store and transport wine in wooden barrels. But it’s not all about storage.
Winemakers became aware that the oak is an integral part of the process of aging that produces an excellent wine.
Because of this, the storing of wine in oak barrels emerged as a crucial part of the winemaking process.
What Does the Oak-Aging Process do?
Now we know why we use oak barrels to store and age wine. It’s time to look at the what actually happens in the oak-aging process that produces the wine that we all know and love.
There are three main effects that oak barrels have on wine. These include the following:
Many of the aromas and flavors that we associate with quality wines are influenced by the oak-aging process.
Whether it’s the subtle vanilla finish of a delicious Cabernet Sauvignon or the smoking flavor of a Red Rioja. This all happens because of the so-called “oak barrel effect”.
Some oak even gives a toasted taste to the wine flavor. This is achieved through a process of heating the oak compounds.
Gradual Ingress of Oxygen
Did you know that oxygen has an important role in the winemaking process too?
You might have heard the wine wisdom of “letting the wine breathe”. While the release of oxygen is a crucial part of winemaking. Too much of a good thing can damage the quality of the wine.
That’s why the way that oak barrels facilitate a gradual and slow ingress of oxygen into the wine provides the perfect solution. This is central to ensuring the wine evolves into a smoother and astringent product.
Winemaking is a science as much as it is an art form.
The fermentation process of wine is central to producing a fine wine. The oak barrels provide the perfect condition for the metabolic reactions that produce a creamy finish to many of our favorite wines.
Types of Oak Barrels
Now we know how oak barrels help to produce the best wines. It’s important to be aware that there are numerous different oaks and other woods used to age wine.
However, we’re going to narrow this down to the main three kinds of oak that are commonly used in the wine production process. These include French oak (Quercus Petraea), Hungarian oak (Quercus frainetto), and American oak (Quercus alba).
1. French Oak
This is the most popular of the three kinds. This is because it provides flavor to the wine in a particularly subtle way. For example, Chardonnay would find American or Hungarian oak overpowering, but the French oak is perfect for this subtle wine.
2. Hungarian Oak
Even though Hungarian oak is not as popular as the other two, it’s increasingly valued by winemakers. This is because it has many of the qualities of French oak but is much more affordable. This oak often provides nutty and vanilla flavors to the wine.
3. American Oak
Finally, American oak usually comes from Missouri. It’s a much stronger and robust flavor compared with the other two types of oak. This makes it especially suitable to Cabernet Sauvignon with its powerful grapes.
How Long Does the Oak-Aging Process Last?
The oak-aging process has different time lengths depending on the type of oak and the kind of wine. Another factor that can determine the time it takes is the size of the barrel.
For example, Pinot Noir only required around 10 months in French oak.
However, sometimes the wine requires a specific amount of time in a certain kind of oak before being transferred to another oak for a period of time.
An example of this is the Gran Reserva Rioja. This wine needs up to 10 months in American oak before being transferred to French oak for an additional 14 months.
The Importance of Oak Barrel Wines
Next time you’re sampling an oak-aged wine, you can consider how the oak barrel effect has influenced the flavor of the wine.
It’s an incredible story how this medieval method of storing wines and other spirits, such as whiskey, has become an integral part of the wine-making process.
Did you enjoy reading about oak barrel wines? Would you like to find out more about how your favorite spirits and wines are produced?
You can find out more about the science of the barrel aging process on our blog today.