Making wine with some sort of oak influence, for many varietals and blends, is very important to the taste, feel and aging of wine. There are many ways to introduce and age wine with oak. The most common and oldest technique is barrel aging. You can taste the oak influence and, depending on how much time or what kind of oak is used, you can even identify which oak is used, just by the taste.
Chardonnay aged on oak is a great example of this. If you taste cinnamon, coconut or cloves, it has, most certainly, been aged on oak!
Oak integrates its chemistries into the wine over time. The yeasts in the wine latch onto the oak wood components which can produce flavors and aromas such as:
- vanilla (vanillan)
- wood, plank, sawdust, #2 pencil
- toast or a toasted characteristic
There are many, many more descriptors for oak and the origin of the oak forest and the type of oak influence can have a profound influence on the wine as well.
- Although there are many regions in Europe that produce fine oak barrels, French oak (white oak and common oak) is considered the gold standard for barrels. French Oak barrels come from one (or more) primary forests and vintners often use barrels from many forests age a wine lot for better oak flavor integration and balance.
- American oak barrels are also widely used and have a distinct characteristic of their own. These white oak forests are found in Missouri, Minnesota and Wisconsin.
The barrel choice can sometimes be as important as the wine lot itself and wine makers are very opinionated about which is best!
There are many other ways to integrate oak into wine that are used much more often than you think! I’ll cover those in another post.
Here is a great video on how oak wine barrels are made. Tonnellerie O is a cooperage in Benecia, California that uses French Oak.
Fun Fact: Oak barrels can only be used a few times before the wood flavors become more neutral due to the wine chemistry/wood interaction. These are very expensive barrels, so rather than throwing them out or making planters out of them, many are sent of to whiskey houses where they char the inside of the barrel and age whiskey in them. So what may have been the biggest influence on your favorite Pinot Noir may now be influencing your favorite bourbon! Now that’s sustainable!