Over a Barrel: The Role of Oak in Winemaking

WineBarrels_VineyardThe aromas and flavors we experience in wine come not just from grapes, but also from winemaking processes and the vessels in which a specific wine is aged.

When vintners wish the nuances of the grapes and nothing else to show through, they typically opt for stainless steel tanks for aging. These tanks are considered “neutral,” imparting no aromas or flavors of their own to the finished product.

When additional complexity in the finished wine is the goal, oak barrels may be the aging vessels of choice. But as all experienced winemakers know, the aromas and flavors imparted by barrels vary widely based upon a given barrel’s place of origin and how it was “seasoned” — a process known as “toasting.”

Here are five fascinating facts about the role barrels play in winemaking…

  1. We often hear vintners sing the praises of French oak barrels, but barrels for aging wine are made from oak grown in Hungary, Slovenia and even Missouri, in addition to other locales around the world.
  1. Depending on the type of oak and where it was grown, it will impart unique flavors. For instance, American oak is known for imparting a coconut-like flavor, whereas French oak is coveted for the spice characteristic it imparts.
  1. “Toasting” is a procedure that helps soften the wood-like nuances of oak barrels. It’s accomplished by exposing the inside of the barrel to a flame.
  1. If a vintner wants the oak notes to play a big role in the overall flavor of the wine, he or she may opt to not only age the wine in oak, but to ferment it in oak as well.
  1. Conversely, if the vintner wishes to limit the oak influence, one way is to re-use barrels. Each time a barrel is refilled with a new vintage of wine, the “oakiness” subsides. After enough fills, a barrel will be rendered “neutral” — much like a stainless steel tank.
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Posted in Wine Cellar Notes
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