Become a wine expert (part 8): Oak In Wine, barrels, and aging - the basics
Without oak, the world of wine wouldn't be nearly as complex or exciting as it is. Oak and wine have had one of the longest and most harmonious love affairs in human history.
The use of oak barrel aging of wine can be traced back to Roman times and is believed to have begun even earlier than that. This loyal love affair, however, started out as an accident. You see, the genesis of this long relationship was borne of the simple necessities of storage and transporatation of wine. In fact, all types of barrels were tested and used and through trial and error, our ancient ancestors quickly learned that oak aging of wine wasn't only great for transporatation and storage - it actually improved the wine.
Different Types of oak
- French - French oak is tighter-grained than its American counterparts and some of the best French oak barrels in the world come from Burgundy, France and Bordeaux, France and are produced by Tonellerie Sirugue and Tonellerie Francois Freres as well as Tonellerie Seguin Moreau - among others. French oak imparts it's flavors and compounds in a slower and more subtle way than its American oak counterparts - and proponents say that wines aged in French oak are more sophisticated and integrated than their American oak counterparts. I say nonsense - it's a different style, and I personally love both. French oak is an impeccable match for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir (the fine grapes that go into White Burgundy and Red Burgundy - respectively) as well as bolder red wines as in the fine red wines of Bordeaux (generally made from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and some others).
- American - American oak doesn't have as tight of a grain as its French oak counterparts meaning it imparts flavors faster and more intensely. Vanilla oak can be detected and pinpointed by vanilla and cedar-like flavors that lead to a sensation of sweetness or lushness when integrated into a wine with big fruit flavors. Great examples of this are Zinfandel (almost always aged in American oak) and the big, fruit-forward, oaky wines from Silver Oak Cellars.
- Hungarian - Hungarian oak is essentially the same thing as French oak. Wine snobs and Francophiles sometimes scoff at Hungarian oak, but the major difference between French and Hungarian oak is the price.
When you hear the term "toast" when referring to an oak barrel, this means that the wine was "toasted" with a flame. Different toast levels lead to different flavors. To generalize, the toasted elements in the barrel sort of mimic what happens to creme brulee when an open flame is taken to the top of it. You get the pure, creamy elements in the dish below, but the top turns into a delicious combination of caramel and toffee-like flavors. Oak with heavier toast, generally imparts more chocolatey, caramel like flavors in wine, while less toast leads to cleaner, purer oak flavors.
New Oak vs Everything else
You might see a wine described as "Aged in French oak for 18 months, 30% new." The amount of time in oak as well as how many of the barrels were "new" will give you even more insight into the flavors, textures, and structure of a wine. We've already discussed how oak aging - specifically in French or Hungarian oak - softens the wine over time, but a key component of the resulting wine is how much of the oak was new? New oak imparts much more flavor and tannin on wine than used oak barrels. In fact, barrels will eventually become "neutral" once they've imparted essentially all of their compounds, flavors, and tannins into the wine, thus the term "neutral oak". If you see a wine aged in 100% new or oak - you'll know that the wine is likely very bold, rich, spicy, and oaky. As the amount of new oak used decreases, the oak elements are generally more subtle.
There are other oak aging techniques and, frankly, I can't stand some of them. Mass-produced wines often use oak chips or even oak dust and dump it into their wines. This often results in a sweet, vanilla-like, fake-tasting wine with no depth. Some people like these wines and - at the end of the day - you should drink what you like. Some other techniques include using oak planks and I've actually tasted some wines that were made using this technique that were really fantastic. The best thing to do, when developing your palate and detection capabilities for oak, is to just pay attention. Know what the oak (or lack of) program was and think about that when tasting the wines. You'll quickly start to understand the differences in flavor, and most importantly, figure out what your favorite styles are. For me, it totally depnds on my mood, what I'm eating. Sometimes I want an unoaked Chardonnay, sometimes I want lots of oak and cinnamon and baking spices - it all just depends. Have fun and let me know if you have any questions or comments. You can do a much deeper dive on oak aging and the science behind it here.