“Let’s talk about oak baby, let’s talk about what it means, let’s talk about all the good things and the bad thing that may be. Let’s talk about oak, let’s talk about oak!”
Ok, that’s enough abuse for your ears today, but I hope you get the point of…we’re going to talk about oak! I get so many questions regarding oak barrels, so I knew I had to do a video on it! I’m going to answer as many questions as possible today, but if you have any burning questions remaining after this video, please leave them in the comment section.
Now let’s get rolling!
What is the function of an oak barrel?
After wine is fermented and the largest solids are removed, it’s still usually pretty rough and needs to settle for a certain amount of time. While this can be done in neutral containers such as stainless steel or cement vats, many winemakers prefer to use oak barrels as they will influence the developing wine and can make it more nuanced. When wine is aged in oak barrels, the subtle flavors of the barrel are imparted to the wine. While different types of barrels give wine different flavors, the commonality is that when wine rests in oak barrels, it achieves a greater complexity and many of the harsh tannins can be softened. Though there are many different aspects to this process, I’ll boil it down to two of the most important: an oak barrel allows the slow introduction of oxygen into the wine and the character of the wood is introduced into the wine.
What is the difference between French and American oak?
So now we know why oak is used to age wine. But is there really a difference between French and American oak (another way to put this is: does it really matter which one is used?). The answer is YES. French oak has the highest tannin concentration of all oak types. It tends to impart flavors of roasted coffee beans, dark chocolate and savory spices on the wines aged in it. American oak, on the other hand, lends flavors of vanilla extract, sweet spices and dill. Though American oak can be more assertive, it depends on how each type of oak is used and how long the wine is allowed to age. Different types of wines react better to one variety of oak or the other in many winemakers’ opinions. While Zinfandels tend to combine with American oak better, Cabs, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay seem to like French oak. Merlot and Syrah, just like your one friend who seems to get along with everyone, does just fine with both types of oak.
What is the difference between barrel size and age of the barrel?
The smaller the oak vs wine ratio during aging, the stronger the influence of the oak. In other words, smaller barrels have more of an impact on wine than larger barrels. When it comes to the age of the barrel, think of it like a tea bag. The first time you use a tea bag, your tea has a lot of flavor, right? Now what happens when you use the same bag for a second cup of tea? Less flavor! It’s the same deal with a wine barrel. When a winemaker first uses a barrel, they usually get about 50% of the extract into the wine. On the second use, it goes down to 25% and diminishes even further after that.
Why do they use used/old barrel if it doesn’t impart as much oak flavors?
Winemakers don't just use barrels so they can squeeze every last drop of oak flavoring into wine. Oak barrels allow wines to “breath”, to mature and develop. Remember, winemaking is an art. When deciding how to use oak to age their wines, a winemaker is thinking of all the ways he or she can make the wine the best it can be and that answer is not always “More oak!”
What about oak chips? Does it impart oak flavors too?
You’ve probably heard about aging wines in a tank with oak chips, right? While this process does add oak flavor to the wine, it doesn’t allow the wine to breathe and age gracefully like aging in an oak barrel does. However, with the use of technology, winemakers can mimic the effect of breathing with a process called micro-oxygenation. This involves using a precise, measured amount of oxygen to the wine over a certain period of time. When a winemaker uses this process, they don’t tend to talk a lot about it because it’s not considered ‘artisanal’ by most consumers. Ah, the perks and drawbacks of technology, right??
Why do some wineries choose to use 100% new oak and others don’t?
When answering this question, I want you to think about oak like makeup for women. Some women wear lots of makeup and some don’t wear any at all. Why? Well, because some want to and some don’t! Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and some people prefer natural beauty while others want a bit (or a lot!) of enhancement. It’s the same with wine. Some wineries want the natural flavor of their wines to come through and others would prefer the nuances that come from adding oak.
Another reason why some use oak and some don’t comes down to resources. Let’s go back to our makeup analogy. Some women can afford high-end makeup and other enhancements and some can’t. Similarly, some wineries can afford to buy $600-$1200 brand new oak barrels for their wines each year and others either don’t have it or choose to spend that money in other ways to create quality wines.
Finally, it comes down to whether or not they can master the art. There are women out there who have a deft hand with a makeup brush and can perfectly accentuate their features. Then there are others who can spend all the money in the world and still can’t figure out how to not look like a clown! The same thing applies to wineries. Just because a winery can afford oak barrels doesn’t mean they should use them for every wine. If they haven’t mastered the nuances of using those barrels or if they have wines that don’t hold up to the process, they don’t use them.
I hope I answered all your questions about oak and the use of it to age wine! If you liked this video, please hit that like button and invite all your inquisitive wine buddies to watch it as well! If you would like to continue the conversation, please leave a question or comment below. Until next time, drink responsibly and enjoyably!