Oak Barrels and Wine
05 Jul 2021
People love to talk about oak, but what's the actual deal? Read on for another brief explanation...
In early wine history, the amphora was the vessel of choice for the storage and transportation of wine. The use of oak in winemaking has been prevalent for at least two millennia, first coming into widespread use during the time of the Roman Empire.
In time, winemakers discovered that beyond just storage convenience, wine kept in oak barrels took on properties that improved it by making it softer and, in some cases, better-tasting. (Through a process called micro-oxidation - allowing minuscule amounts of oxygen to penetrate through the oak).
The two most widely used types of oak are American (which tends to be more intensely flavoured) and French oak (with more subtle sweet and vanilla flavours). Winemakers tend to choose American oak for bold, powerful reds, and French for more elegant, subtle wines.
Barrels are built in ‘cooperages’, and the actual construction is quite the art. The traditional method of European coopers has been to hand-split the oak into staves (or strips) along the grain. After the oak is split, it is allowed to ‘season’ or dry outdoors while exposed to the elements. This process can take anywhere from 10 to 36 months during which time the harshest tannins from the wood are leached out. The longer the wood is allowed to season the softer the potential wine stored in the barrels may be, but this can add substantially to the cost of the barrel.
Only about 2 oak barrels can be made per oak tree which takes several decades to grow. Additionally, the process of coopering the wood into barrels takes great skill. For this reason, the average price of a new wine barrel costs the winery about $1500–$2000+. This adds on about $4–$8 in raw materials cost for a single bottle of wine..
Bear in mind, barrels are by no means single use, the more times a barrel is used the less flavour it imparts on the wine. After 4-5 years the oak would have lost almost all the tannin and flavour compounds warranting the barrel ‘neutral’ or ‘seasoned’. At this point, winemakers are still benefiting from the micro oxygenation but not so much the imparting of flavours, hence ‘seasoned oak’ being ideal for aging wines that need a little softening without the influence of new flavours.