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by Liana Bennett
Wood and Wine
Oak barrels have been used for centuries to age and store wine. The first use of oak barrels was not to add flavor but simply a convenient way to transport wine. Oak is a tight-grained wood that is nonporous. The shape of the barrel also makes it a strong container that is easily rolled either empty or full. Being nonporous also helps to impart more flavor to the wine and so it was not long until someone figured out that oak was also a great enhancer to the wine.
The oak used to make barrels come from several countries in Europe such as France, Slovenia, Hungry, and from the United States. However, the primary oak used for wine barrels comes from France or North America. American oak tends to be less costly than French oak as the cut of the grain produces less waste; not because it is an inferior wood.
The cut of the grain, the way in which the wood is prepared and how the staves (the long pieces of wood that make up the barrel) are put together can determine the effects to the wine. At first, American coopers (people that make barrels) took some time before they were able to craft a wine barrel as they were used to making whisky barrels, which is looking for a different end result. Today, American wood and barrels are used all over the world with some regions bringing in the wood and constructing the barrels themselves.
Wine barrels come in different shapes, sizes, thickness of the staves and construction manners. A barrel weighs about 130 lbs empty and 600 lbs when full of wine. There are approximately 300 bottles of wine in a barrel. It is up to the winemaker to determine which characteristics are best suited for his/her grapes. Most barrels are made into either a Bordeaux style barrel that holds 59 gallons or a Burgundy style that holds 60 gallons. The inside of the barrel is charred or toasted during construction. The amount of char determines if it is Light, Medium or Heavy Toast. Of course some grapes are more suited to one style of toasting.
Although barrels can last up to 100 years, their flavor life is about 5 years. After that, the oak flavors they impart diminish. However, shaving the inside of the barrel and then recharring it will help to lengthen its usefulness. As well, winemakers will blend wines from newer and older barrels to achieve the perfect marriage of oak and wine.
The winemaker must also make the decision as to how long to leave the wine in the barrel before bottling. This will depend on the grape variety, the style of wine, in some regions, the appellation rules and of course the winery’s personal style.
Benefits of Oak
• Deepens the flavors
• Stablizes the red color
• Adds mouth feel
• Enhances the structure
• Can soften the tannins - if there is the right amount of oxygen
White wines - vanilla, butter, nuts
Red wines - spice and wood
American oak - stronger flavor with sweeter vanilla and spice tones
French oak - more subtle effect
Oak chips are an inexpensive way to impart oak flavor to wine. Chips are used in bulk batches to add some structure and color. The flavor does not really improve but leaves a harsh bitterness instead.
Words to know
Barrel-aged - grape juice fermented in another container (usually a stainless steel vat) and then transferred into the wine barrel for aging.
Barrel-fermented – grape juice fermented directly inside the oak barrel and then aged in the same barrel; usually Chardonnay
Oak Tasting Notes
From: The Beverage Alcohol Report - November 2005, Liana Bennett
The Beverage Alcohol Report (The BAR) was published on a monthly basis until May, 2006 compliments of Liana Bennett. Its main purpose was to further the knowledge, appreciation and general enjoyment of all alcoholic beverages. Your comments, questions and tasting stories can be sent to [email protected]
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