There is a very important link between wine and oak, and it is one that should be investigated a little bit further. This is of particular interest because oak wine barrels have traditionally been utilized to ferment and age wine for hundreds of years. Think of oak as being a special flavoring in the wine barrels, and it makes wine more palatable.
Which Wines Usually Go Through Oak Fermentation and Aging?
There are plenty of red wine barrels that go through this process. They include wine barrels such as Chianti, Pinotage, Tempranillo, Cabernet Saurignon, Zinfandel, Syrah, Pinot Noir, Merlot and Nebbiolo.
White wine barrels that go through the oak fermentation and aging process include Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Grigio and Chardonnay.
What Makes Oak so Great for This Process?
Oak gives wine its aroma, flavor, depth and richness. When it comes to aroma, oak wine barrels tend to give wine different aromas such as nutmeg, vanilla, clove, cinnamon and even allspice. These are all the many types of aromas that oak wine barrels usually give to wine. When it comes to taste, oak wine barrels give wine different tastes of smoke, mocha, butter, coconut, cinnamon, tea, butter, caramel and toffee.
The Connection between Oak and Wine Barrels
The average oak wine barrels contain about 59 or 60 gallons of wine. However, this is based upon where it is from. Bordeaux wine barrels contain about 59 gallons of wine, and Burgundy wine barrels contain about 60 gallons. Oak has a porous quality, which means that about five gallons of wine will be evaporated before the whole process is over.
Because of this natural process, this also means that oak is going to give wine more flavor and aroma. Oak is often used to make wine barrels, but the type of oak used is based upon many different things. Where does the barrel originate? There are different types of oak depending on where it came from. How does a particular region dry and toast its oak? How did the company make the wine barrel?
The Kinds of Oak Used to Make Wine Barrels
The most popular kinds of oak wine barrels are the American and French oak barrels. But, the Hungarian and Slovenian wine barrels are also used a lot by different wine makers all over the world. The American wine barrels don’t cost as must as the other ones. The grain is wider and the wood tannins are not as high as the French oak wine barrels. The American wine barrels also tend to bring out more vanilla flavors and aromas than the French barrels. They also are a little bit sweeter in taste. But on the other hand, the French oak wine barrels are considered to be the best because they have wood tannins that are higher and wood grains that don’t have as much impact on the aroma and flavor, but they have a lot of complexities.
A French oak wine barrel is priced about $600, and an American oak wine barrel is priced at about $300. Compare the prices and you will understand why wine companies charge more for wines that are aged with these types of barrels. Many times wineries like to alternate different wine barrels so that wine prices aren’t as expensive.
Why is “New Oak” So Important?
New oak wine barrels provide more oak flavoring and aromas, and this greatly impacts the quality of the wine. As the barrels get older, they won’t be able to provide the same amount of influences. For example, the same thing happens when you use new tea bags. The flavor is more concentrated when it is used the first time as opposed to when it is used over and over again. Once wine barrels produce more and more vintages, the oak influence gets weaker and weaker.
Many times wineries advertise by saying that a third of the wine was put in a barrel that had new oak, but the other two thirds of the wine was put in older oak wine barrels. The winery does not have to invest as much, and its customers don’t have to pay as much. However, the wine still has oak flavoring and aroma.
Toasting Oak Barrels
Once the oak is selected, the winery has to determine how to toast the oak for certain types of wines. The selections can be light, medium or heavy. Light brings out some of the oak qualities. Heavy means that the oak flavoring and aromas have more smoky qualities. This does plenty to impact the wine in general.
Wine and Oak Chips
Some wineries don’t use oak wine barrels at all. They choose just to use oak chips. This greatly reduces the price of the wine because the chips can be used either to ferment or age the wine. Also, the chips are available in different flavors and formats. Using oak chips actually makes the process much quicker. This is because they are concentrated and they come into contact more with the wine. They are put into the wine via bags that are similar to tea bags. This practice was just allowed for Old World wineries as of 2006.
Oak is very important when it comes to the fermentation and aging of wine. But the best way to see the differences in taste and aroma is to do many taste tests. Chardonnay is one of the simplest to try this with. It is a style of wine that uses plenty of oak. You can try both oaked and unoaked bottles of Chardonnay and do wine tastings. The oak wine will usually have a smoky, buttery taste that has a lot of flavor. The unoaked bottle will have hints of fruit flavors such as apple, peach or pear if it was made in a warm climate.