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Aging Wine in Oak

Why It's Done, What It Adds & What Types of Oak are Used

Aging Wine in Oak Barrels

Barrel aging in oak is an ancient technique that's been used in the crafting of fine wines for thousands of years. Unlike other storage containers that are only useful for holding or transporting wine (steel vats, for example), oak barrels can enhance and add to the flavors of wine as well as change and soften the wine in other ways.

Below we highlight why this technique is used, what it adds to wine, and how different types of oak contribute different characteristics to wines: 

Why Wine is Aged in Oak Barrels

Oak aging can improve a fine wine by adding flavor as well as by softening the wine through a slow, controlled exposure to oxygen. The flavors that the oak contributes come both from the wood itself, and also from the 'toasting' process, where the interior of the barrel is heated over an open flame. Also, because the oak is somewhat porous, it allows a minute amount of contact between the wine and the air outside of the barrel. This causes some of the wine to evaporate, concentrating the wine slightly, as well as bringing out more mature flavors and softening the tannins found in red wines.

What Flavors & Character Oak Aging Adds to Wine

The contact between the aging wine and the oak causes some of the flavorful phenolic compounds of the wood to be leeched into the wine. The types of flavors produced are commonly notes of vanilla, caramel, and spices. In addition, the 'toast' on the barrel will also affect the types of flavors added, including smoky or nutty hints. Barrels are toasted to different degrees, with wines aged in heavily toasted oak displaying more of these types of flavors than wines aged in lightly toasted oak. 

What Different Types of Barrels are Used

France and America are the most well-known countries for wine barrel production, and are also well-known for producing barrels that yield very different types of wines because the two countries utilize different species of oak. The species cultivated for American barrels grows significantly more quickly than its French cousin, producing wood with a looser grain that imparts stronger flavor to wine, particularly vanilla notes and an herbal, dill-like aroma. The finer grain of French oak means wines absorb less flavors from the wood for more subtle styles. American oak is still used widely in Europe and vice-versa, and some winemakers will blend wines aged in different types of barrels into a single wine for added complexity.

Wines Aged in American Oak to Try:
2007 Pride Mountain Vineyards Chardonnay, Napa Valley ($38)
2006 St. Francis Old Vine Zinfandel, Sonoma County ($16)
2005 Silver Oak Cabernet Sauvignon, Alexander Valley ($55)

Wines Aged in French Oak to Try:
2007 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay, Napa Valley ($50)
2007 Tardieu Laurent "Vielles Vignes" Cotes du Rhone ($30)

Next Article:  Going 'Off' on Corked Wines




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