This week's question from Laura in Tuscon, Arizona
Why is wine aged in oak barrels?
Traditionally, oak was used for wine storage because it's sturdy and easy to shape, waterproof, and transports well. The oak grain allows a small amount of oxygen into the wine, softening the tannins over time. It also adds flavor and structure to the wine by giving it a heavier mouthfeel, fuller body, and increased tannins. The flavors the oak imparts are vanilla, caramel, baking spices, and smoked/toasted flavors. However, after two to three years of use, the barrel is considered "neutral," meaning it no longer surrenders any flavor.
There's a variety of oak to choose from; the three most widely used are French oak, American oak and Hungarian oak. French oak is the most subtle and elegant of the three. American oak is more aggressive and imparts coconut, dill, and intense vanilla flavors. Hungarian oak is somewhere in between French and American oak, it's not too aggressive or subtle and imparts nutty flavors. Barrels are toasted with fire at different levels ranging from light, medium, medium long, medium plus, to heavy.
The toast levels have a large effect on the flavor profile as well. Light toasts have earthy, mild, toasted/baked flavors. Medium toast shows sweeter flavors like butterscotch, caramel, chocolate, coffee, baking spices, vanilla and baked bread. Medium long has more subtle hazelnut flavors since it's toasted on a low level for a long period of time. Medium plus shows flavors of brown sugar, mocha, hazelnut, spice, and intense vanilla bean. Heavy toast imparts flavors of smoke, roasted coffee, espresso and a touch of black pepper.
Another factor that affects the wine is where the oak came from and which cooper (barrel manufacturer) made the barrel. The oak forests in France considered the best are Troncais, Alliers, and Nevers. Just as grapes reveal the character of the place they came from, so do oak trees. Many winemakers prefer to use a variety of different types of oak, coopers, and toast levels to add dimension and complexity to the wine. It's similar to a chef using different spices to add diversity and flavor to a dish.
Wineries that don't want to spend on pricey new oak barrels can implement less expensive oak treatments through the use of oak chips, oak staves, or oak tannin products. Oak chips come in cloth bags that are placed into a tank of wine for a period of time.The wine extracts the oak flavors and tannin from the oak chips. It's the same idea as teabags steeped in water. Oak tannin products can be added to the wine by liquid or powder. These methods of oak treatment are fast and cheap ways of treating wine like a fast food meal you get at a drive through. Barrel aging is like slow, home cooked meal with quality ingredients that may cost you more money and time to make.
What are your thoughts on oak in wine? Do you like wines with a dominant oak influence? Are you willing to spend more on a bottle of wine that's been aged in oak barrels versus a wine that hasn't been?
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