Winemaking and the Oak Influence

Here is a statistic that may startle you: only 2 percent of all wine made ever spends time in wood barrels.

That’s according to someone who should know: Francois Peltereau, president of Seguin Moreau Napa Cooperage, a maker of oak barrels for wine aging. Oak barrels are expensive, and because of that, they are reserved for only the very best wines.

In a world of “Two-Buck Chuck,” jug wine and wine in cardboard boxes, the barrel-aged wine is a true rarity. We, as wine lovers, experience it much more often than most people, but that’s only because we’re willing to shell out for a glass what most people would expect to pay for a bottle…or a jug.

Which brings up the question: is wood worth it?

Absolutely. Here’s why…

While other types of wood can be used for storing wine, oak is preferred and most commonly used by a wide margin. Think of the resins and sap found in pine; they would not be complementary additions to a wine’s flavor profile. Oak, on the other hand, offers aromas and flavors that marry nicely with most types of wine—it’s a matter of matching the right kind of oak to the right kind of wine.

Because oak is ever so slightly porous, an oak barrel exposes wine to oxygen at a very slow pace. This serves to “soften” the wine without spoiling it, smoothing out the rough edges that can make red wine, in particular, seem angular and harsh.

Oak also imparts flavors, the exact nuances dependent upon the source of the wood and the degree of “toasting” that the barrel staves undergo. Among the aromas one may experience in a wine that has been barrel aged are caramel, smoke and vanilla, which can be very enjoyable accents to the wine’s natural fruit flavors.

Many winemakers think of oak barrels as condiments. Just as chefs select certain spices and sauces to elevate or define a dish, vintners choose oak barrels based on their “vision” for a finished wine.

Style preferences run the gamut from “no wood” to that of the so-called “200 percent” winemakers—those who ferment their wine in barrel in addition to aging it in barrel.

All styles are valid; the trick is finding the style you enjoy most.

Posted in In the Cellar
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