Oak aging barrels offer one of the best ways to increase a wine’s flavor complexity and add age. Oak aging barrels have been present in wineries for several thousand years. In general, red wines are stored in oak aging barrels for aging and whites are placed in stainless tanks for aging. The one exception is Chardonnay, with strong spice, oak and vanilla flavors are due to the use of oak storage barrels.
The wood used to create oak aging barrels are from oaks that grow in cool climates. This climate allows the trees to mature slowly and develop a tight grain, which is ideal for creating oak aging barrels.
The size of the oak aging barrels has an impact on the ultimate wine flavor. The ration of the barrel’s surface area and the volume of the wine will dictate on the flavors impact on the wine’s flavor. Smaller oak aging barrels will have a greater impact on flavor. In addition, new barrels will impart more flavors into the wine stored within than will older barrels.
Coopers, who are responsible for creating oak barrels for aging split the wood into staves along the wood grain. These staves are aged outside in the natural elements to dry for up to three years. Leaving the staves to age for a longer time allows more tannins to leach out and results in a softer wine. However, the longer the staves are aged, the higher the cost of the barrel.
The next step in creating oak aging barrels is the toasting of the wood. This process can have the greatest effect on the quality of the flavor imparted to the wine by its time in the barrel and also has the greatest variability. Toasting is accomplished over an open fire. The flame’s heat changes the oak’s chemical composition, and ultimately the flavor passed on by the oak aging barrels. Heavy toasting can reduce the color of the wine and minimize the coconut notes of wines aged in the oak aging barrels.
French Oak Aging Barrels
French oak aging barrels are more expensive than those made from American oak. These barrels cost about 1000 USD per barrel. The tight grained French oak creates a silky flavor, transparent tannins and a light sweetness. Additional toasting creates a wine with a more jam like flavor. Each forest provides characteristics of the flavors imparted in the wine.
Terroir can impart both grapes and the oak aging barrels as well. Often coopers choose wood from all five forests when creating a barrel. Such notions of regional character from France do not exist with coopers using American oak.
While much less expensive than French oak barrels, American oak has at least twice as many lactones and provides a stronger vanilla overtone to wines in these oak aging barrels. American oak wood works well with bold red wines and Chardonnays with a warm climate. Regardless of the toast levels, American oak aging barrels provide a sweet, aromatic, roasted coffee or campfire note to the wines aged inside them.