The Use Of Oak Barrels For Aging Wines

All About Oak Barrels Why And How It Enhances WineThe container wine is most often seen in is the glass bottle.  However, before wine is poured into the bottle it spends a lot of time in other containers.  Of these, oak barrels for aging are the most significant.

Wine aged in wood, most often oak barrels for aging, makes it different from wine stored in any other container.  The following basic terms are used when referring to oak barrels for aging wine and what they indicate.

Aging Wine Barrels Began As A Convenience

Wine has been stored in wooden barrels for over 2,000 years, primarily as a convenient way to keep it in place or to move it about.  Barrels were better than clay or earthen vessels as they don’t easily shatter, can be more tightly sealed, and are round, so they can be rolled.

Over the past few hundred years, wine-makers have learned that oak barrels for aging wine, whether for a long or short period, can improve the flavors.

Exposure of the wine to the interior of the oak barrels for aging and through the permeable wood, the air outside, affects wine in a way that no other container is able to duplicate.  Oxygen seeps through the oak barrels for aging and rounds out or softens the wine, while evaporation through the porous wood concentrates the flavors.

Depending on the origin or type of the wood or its treatment by the cooper, oak barrels for aging further complements the wine, giving it unique traits by weaving in aromas and flavors that are only found in the oak.

For example, the staves used in manufacturing oak barrels for aging are toasted by a fire.  The level of charring determines the amount of caramel like or smoky tastes and scents the barrel can impart to the wine.  Wood helps to marry flavors like a condiment, add complexity and improve the feel of the wine in the mouth, also known as texture.

Barrels for aging wine are extremely rare.  Only about 2% of all wines produced today will ever see wood.  Only the wines of the highest quality are ever placed in oak casks.

Wines Fermented in a Barrel

Some of these rare and very special wines are made from grapes fermented in oak barrels for aging, giving the wine life in wood instead of some other container that is much more static in nature.  Fermenting in stainless steel generally allows the wine to retain the fruit character of the grapes, but fermenting in a wood barrel can add creaminess to chardonnays or reduce the tannins of Cabernet Sauvignon.

American Oak vs. French Oak

Oak barrels for aging are generally preferred by wine-makers and depending on the type of wine being produced, the oak may need to come from a particular location.  American oaks may be better for syrahs, as the wood and wine offer a synergistic affinity.  The best oak barrels for aging will depend on both the grape and the type of oak.

Oak barrels are unique and the wood’s characteristics are well suited for wine making as well as for use with other liquids, including Cognac and bourbon.  Oak does not have the sap and resins of pine that are unsuitable for wine-making.

While oak is a very strong hardwood, it is ideal for forming into barrels for aging wine.  The oak tree stands like a small Willis Tower, with bundles of tube that run parallel to the trunk.  These bundles are held in place by rays that run radically from the outside.  The tubes are also plugged by tyloses, so the grain becomes liquid tight, making it a good choice for storing wine.

The wood in the oak grows twice each year.  Once in the spring, followed by another in the summer.  Trees that have lots of light and that grow in warmer climates, such as in the state of Missouri or near Limoges in France have wide grains due to the generous size of the growth rings.  In cooler climates and in dark dense forests, such as Vosges or Troncais France, the wood is denser and tighter grained.

The wider grained American Oak creates oak barrels for aging that add more wood flavors to the wine, while tighter grained French Oak does not impart as much.  However, the tighter grained French oak barrels for aging have more tannins and other phenols, which are also silkier than the American ones.

New Wood and Time in Barrel

With newer or less used barrels for aging the wood has more to provide the wine stored inside.  The longer the wine spends in the oak barrels for aging, the more it receives from the wood.  During the first year of aging, the barrel will give 50% of what it will give to the wine.  The next year gives 25% and with each passing year the wood has less to offer.

This often leads wine-makers to combine French oak and American oak treatments for wines using both new and 2-year barrels for aging for portions of the regimen.  You may also hear of the 200 percent wine-makers who ferment the wine in a barrel, then use a new oak barrel for aging or transfer wine that has been aged in new barrels each year.

Wine-makers enjoy their woods and their oak barrels for aging.