Education Series – Gather ’round the Oak Barrel – Part 3

Our oak barrel story started in the forest then led us to the cooperage, and now it has led us to the bottle. After the barrel has gone through what can sometimes be a long creation process, it is time to fill it with wine. The topic of today’s post is what happens to that delicious wine while it is aging in the barrel. 


The amount of time that a wine can spend in a barrel can vary drastically from months to several years. There are several factors that can influence how long a wine might be oak aged. The main factors are the grape itself (longer time for more hearty red varietals and shorter time for thinner skinned reds and whites), the age of the barrel (barrels that have been used several times will not impart the same amount of flavor as fresh barrels), the region that the wine is made (in some wine regions there are regulations around how long a wine type must spend in oak), and ultimately the experience of the winemaker taking into account all of the above will determine how long a wine spends aging in barrel.


Regardless of the time that the wine spends in the barrel, there are few things that can be happening to the juice.  One thing that happens is the softening of the wine  that is due to the minute amount of oxygen that seeps in through the staves, causing a more rapid ( but still fairly slow) binding of the tannins versus the wines being in an air tight container. The oak itself imparts its own flavors and aromas into the wine. Besides the obvious wood and tea flavors that come from the wood, vanilla (most commonly from American oak), clove, smoky and caramel aromas/flavors (as well as others) can come from the barrel maturation.  Interestingly, the chemicals that provide the caramel aroma are generated during the toasting process. Two of these Maltol and Cyclotene have been shown to be flavor “accentuators”, helping to increase the presence of other flavors.  This is similar to the role that MSG plays in many food products. The last role of the oak barrel that I will mention that some say is the most important, is its natural ability to clarify and stabilize the wine, decreasing and or removing the need for fining and filtering the wine. Now this list was in no particular order of importance nor is it an exhaustive list of what oak does to the wine, although it is pretty complete. 

There are some great books out there than can go into great detail of the chemical reactions that are occurring inside a barrel that if you are a chemist can be quite fascinating.This completes the series on oak barrels. For the most part this has been pretty top level information on the process.  If anyone has questions I will be happy to try and answer them or if anyone just wants to discuss what is currently going on the barrel market, just shoot me an email.

 ReferencesOxford Companion to Wine, 3rd Edition, Jancis Robinson and The Wine Bible, Karen MacNeil

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Education Series – Gather ’round the Oak Barrel – Part 1


This Education Series is going consist of 3 parts. Today we will focus on the types of oak that are used in barrel making, where they come from, and what makes them different. Next Tuesday, in part 2 we will talk about cooperage, the process by which oak barrels are made. Then the following Tuesday, part 3 will consist of the role that oak plays in the wine making process.

So before we talk about where the oak for oak barrels comes from, let’s define what types of oak are used for wine barrels. Almost all wine barrels are made from white oak due to its non porous nature and ability to create a water (or wine) tight seal. Getting a little bit technical here, the white oak used for wine barrels are all from the Quercus species of oak, 2 are European and 1 is American.

When you walk into a tasting room, 9 times out of 10 the winemaker or person doing the tasting will tell you “this was aged in French Oak or American Oak” or sometimes both. At least this is true for most wineries here in the United States. Although these are the most common, oak for wine barrels can be harvested in many other regions in Europe. In fact, in Piedmont, Italy where Megan and I were this summer, the preferred choice for aging the Nebbiolo grape is Slovenian oak.

To date there has been no general consensus on which forests in the United States provide the best American Oak for barrel making. Currently, Minnesota and Wisconsin are in the lead, while small amounts of barrels, mostly on an experimental basis, are also coming out of Oregon. Generally oak from forests in the Southern US are considered too sappy and unsuitable for barrel use.

In France it is a bit more complicated – There are 6 main forests that French Oak is produced from, though these by no means comprise the complete list. These six are found mainly in Northern France: Western Loire and Sarthe, Limousin, Nievre and Allier, Vosges, Jura and Bourgogne, and Argonne. Each forest provides oak that has distinct characteristics, for instance the Nievre and Allier forests are known for wood that is consistently tight grained, and thus more prized with winemakers.

So besides the price tag, $650 for American oak barrels and $850 for French barrels on average, what is the difference between the two most popular oaks, French and American? The answer is the flavor. American oak is much stronger in its flavor or “oakiness” and thus the wines that are put into it need to be stronger (more full bodied) wines. American oak is typically used in Spain, Australia and North and South America. Wines from these regions, such as Rioja, Shiraz and warm climate “BIG” Cabernet Sauvignons are typically put into American oak.

French oak is by far the gold standard when it comes to barrels made for wine production. French oak is much softer, and usually tighter grained, imparting less tannins into the unknowing wine. Barrels from certain forests that are renowned for their superior French oak can command prices well over $1000 a piece.

This was just a primer into where oak for oak barrels comes from. If you would like any more info on oak, shoot me an email, I will be happy to oblige.

Stay tuned next week for Part 2 of …. Gather ‘round the Oak Barrel.

Reference: Oxford Companion to wine 3rd edition.

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