The winemaking process is exceptionally complex and multi-layered, where the style of wine can vary tremendously. The choices of the winemakers can lead to vastly different styles of wine, depending on their winemaking route. One of the best examples of this is the use of oak in their wines, which will lead the wine to a unique style. But what few realize is that oaking is equally as complex since different oak types, timing, and age can also affect the end product.
Why Are Wines Oaked?
We are inclined to think that oaking wine is merely to add the smokey, oaky flavor from the barrel. But the addition of oak has so much more to it.
The majority of the time, if a winemaker does choose to age his wine in oak barrels, the wine is added to the barrels after the fermentation process, or they are allowed to ferment inside the oak barrels. As a result of this time in the oak barrels, the wine will extract some of the barrel’s characteristics, which is why oaked wines have the smokey, oaky characteristics.
The age of the barrels and the time the wine spends in the barrels will greatly determine how much of these characteristics can be found in the wine. The concept can be compared to the use of a teabag. If the tea bag is used the first time, the flavor is the most intense, but the more the teabag has been used, the less intense the flavor will be. Equally, the longer the tea is left in the water, the more the flavor will be extracted.
This teabag concept is the same for wine in oak barrels. The wine that is stored in brand new barrels will extract the most intense oak aromas, while the intensity is reduced the more the barrel is used. And, of course, wines that spend months in the barrels will extract more characteristics than those who spend a few weeks in the oak.
This ability to manipulate the intensity of oak aromas in wine has allowed winemakers around the world to create unique expressions of wine with various flavors and intensity. But more than that, the addition of oak barrels allow winemakers to age their wine considerably longer.
More than just flavor, oak adds tannin to a wine. Tannin is considered a preservative, which helps wine age exceptionally well, progress, and develop more complex characteristics with time. So by aging wine in barrels, winemakers can increase the age-ability of a wine.
Why Is Oak Used For Wine Barrels?
The overwhelming majority of wine barrels in the world are made from oak. It is the wood of choice and has been for centuries. There are a number of reasons that oak is used for making barrels, and it isn’t something that will change soon.
Firstly, oak is a softer wood, which makes it easier to bend into a barrel shape. Additionally, oak has tight grains, meaning that liquid doesn’t seep through the wood easily. Interestingly, there are different types of oak, all of which offer different characteristics to a wine.
The most popular types are American oak and French oak. The growing conditions of these two countries create very different characteristics in the oak and, of course, the wine. While American oak is considered slightly sweeter, more hints of vanilla and cinnamon is prominent in wines that are aged in American oak. On the other hand, French oak adds spicier pepper notes to the wines.
Making Oaked Wines More Sustainably
Fortunately, wood is one of the most sustainable raw materials we have and is renewable. The key is to focus on creating sustainable forests, planting more than what we extract.
The oak leans toward being unsustainable when looking at how the barrels are treated in the cellar. In order to clean, disinfect and use oak barrels, exorbitant amounts of water are required. In fact, over 100 liters (26 gallons) of water is used to clean a 225 liter (59 gallons) barrel. And considering most barrels are used four or five times, this process is repeated every time the barrel is to be used again.
There are alternatives currently emerging in the market, which rely on high-frequency technology to kill the bacteria, as opposed to the high-pressure water systems. However, the process is slow, with few initiatives focusing on reducing the millions of liters of water used for this cleaning process each year.
- Wines are oaked for several reasons, including the addition of certain flavors and aromas. By aging wines in oak barrels, the winemakers also add to the age-ability of the wines.
- The reason most wine barrels are made from oak is because of their flexibility and ability to hold liquids well.
- While oak is a renewable resource, the amount of water required to treat the barrels after each use is highly unsustainable, and there should be a bigger focus on alternatives.