Why all the fuss?

The most expensive wines in the world are produced with oak aging. It’s a crucial component in the world of fine wine where everything from type, size, age, grain and treatment of oak barrels greatly affects the finished wine. Aging wine in oak barrels adds

  • aromas typically found in a spice rack, such as nutmeg, cinnamon, vanilla and clove, and
  • flavours on your palate such as hints of caramel, mocha, butter and toffee.

Where are the oak trees grown?

Barrels are made from oak trees grown all over the world with the most popular made from oak grown in France and the USA. Oak trees ideal for wine barrels usually grow best in cool climates which gives the trees a chance to mature slowly and develop a desirable tight grain.

Most French oak comes from one of five forests, some were originally planted during Napoleonic times for shipbuilding. Each forest is considered to have distinctive characteristics, so when a barrel is ordered it is possible to specify the forest from which you want your oak barrel to be sourced!

American barrels aren’t usually distinguished by forest. The oak is grown in many different states, mainly the Midwest, Oregon and in the Appalachians. It is estimated that more than 5 billion white oak trees in USA cover a total of more than 200,000 square miles!

Which oak is used?

Many variables are in play with oak aging. Some producers use only French or US barrels, others mix it up. Other variables include different barrel producers, levels of toast (heating the inside of barrels to caramelise wood sugars), and mixing newer (stronger impact) with older (more neutral impact). Some winemakers barrel-age wines a few months, others a couple of years or more.

So what are the different impacts on wine of different barrels?

Source: French USA Eastern European, Hungary
Grain style: Finer, consistent Looser Fine-medium
Grapes suited: Pinot Noir; Chardonnay; cool climate Shiraz Cabernet; warm climate shiraz Malbec; Petit Verdot
Relative cost: Highest Lowest Medium
Flavours/style imparted: Subtle, spicy; satin or silk textures Stronger flavours – dill, vanilla, coconut; creamy texture, fruit forward Full bodied; nutty

 

In the end

Winemakers strive to produce the best quality wines from the best quality grapes and the most appropriate wine making equipment, including selective use of oak. Winemaking is a business where quality, quantity and economics need to be balanced to ensure a winery will make sufficient money to survive and prosper. After all, we all want the same things – access to a range of great wines at great value prices – and a combination of different oak barrels and stainless steel tanks (even plastic and concrete tanks) allows the modern winery do its best work for our enjoyment.

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