Hooked to Oak: Redefining Wine through Oak Aging

Here’s one simple truth that most wine connoisseurs can agree with: oak aging can vastly improve a wine’s flavor profile. Beyond integrating sumptuous nuances into the vino, this winemaking process also does wonders in enriching the wine’s structure. From Napa Valley’s creamiest Chardonnays to France’s most complex Bordeaux blends, oak aging has a way of enhancing the world’s finest wines.

Most of today’s priciest vinos are also oak-aged, with many producers adding the cost of the barrel to the price of their bottles. See, while most winemakers use their oak barrels 3-4 times before replacing them, some prefer to use them just once. This one-time use of oak helps keep the wine’s flavors as concentrated as possible. And as mentioned above, this particular process’ cost is added to the price of the wine, accounting for up to half of the vino’s production expense.

A Brief History On Oak Aging

During the early days of winemaking, back in the time of the Ancient Romans, wine storage came in the form of clay amphorae. These vessels were useful in keeping wine, but had the massive drawback of breakage during transport. The Ancient Mesopotamians had a better solution to this problem. Instead of using terracotta amphorae to transport their wines, they used barrels fashioned from the hardy palm wood. These barrels were sent to different locations through the river Euphrates.

Despite being a tougher and more effective wine storage vessel, palm wood barrels were extremely difficult to make. This pushed early Roman winemakers to try out different types of wood. They soon discovered that beyond being more malleable than palm wood, oak also had a way of softening wine, making it more palatable for the drinker. From that point on, wine producers used oak barrels to develop their wines.

Although the world has been using oak to age wine for over 2,000 years, this wine aging technique didn’t fully catch on in the United States until the 1970s. Leading wine producer, Robert Mondavi, is credited with spurring America’s interest in finding different styles of oak aging. Through a series of experiments using various types of oak, he was able to find the best barrel qualities for topnotch wine production.

Two Primary Methods Of Oak Aging Wine

In their youth, wines tend to be on the coarser, cruder, and greener side of things. These wines are usually chock-full of harsh tannins that required time to settle down. Oak aging solves that particular concern and introduces a whole new range of flavors and textural nuances along the way.

Now, there are two primary ways to oak age wines. The traditional and more widely used method involves transferring the wine into barrels and keeping them there for months or years at a time. This is usually done during the wine fermentation or aging phase. Most barrels are built for the long haul, lasting up to 100 years. But in terms of usage, you can only age wines in these barrels for 2-3 times before they stop giving their ‘oak’ flavors.

The second method involves the use of oak staves, planks, or chips. The wood is enclosed in fabric wraps and immersed in the wine. This is a faster way to introduce woodsy and vanilla aromas into the vino. While barrel-aging takes months or even years to achieve, using staves or chips can deepen the wine’s oak flavors within a matter of weeks. Interestingly, this technique has garnered its share of criticism. Some wine experts argue that oak flavoring using chips or planks limits the flavors of the wine. Vanilla tends to dominate the vino’s aroma. Pundits believe that because this method does little when it comes to enriching the wine’s structure, its benefits are often deemed as one-sided.

The Mechanics Of Barrel-aging

As we mentioned earlier, barrel-aging is the preferred oak aging method for premium wine producers. The process allows winemakers to hit two birds with one stone. They get to improve both flavors and wine structure in one go. Oak is a porous wood that allows oxygenation and evaporation to commence during the winemaking process. As the wine ‘sits’ and settles in the barrel, trace amounts of oxygen penetrate the wine, smoothing out its tannins for a rounder mouthfeel.

The absorbent nature of the wood also permits the evaporation of excess alcohol and water. A typical wine barrel which holds roughly around 59 gallons of liquor, loses up to 6.5 gallons of surplus liquid during the aging process. This leaves the wine’s flavors more concentrated and fragrant. To bring a touch of caramel goodness to the wine, oak barrels are usually ‘toasted’ to release the wood’s natural sugars. This is what wine critics describe as the ‘toastiness’ of the vino.

The Flavors and Textures of Oak

Now, we spoke earlier about certain oak flavors and aromas. These added ‘flavors’ are a product of the interaction between the wood’s chemical properties and the wine’s existing structure. The flavors derived from this process will vary depending on the type of wine, fermentation technique, and length of time the wine spends inside the barrel.

In general, white wines develop a darker, more golden hue after oak aging. Their texture also becomes smoother, less crisp, with added hints of cream, caramel, smoke, vanilla, spice, baked tarts, coconut, and crème brûlée added to the mix. An oaked Chardonnay, for example, exhibits a more silken texture compared to its unoaked equivalent. You can also detect less herbaceous qualities in the vino, with more prominent notes of coconut, cream, and cloves adding dimension to its flavors.

As for oaked red wines, they too, exhibit more complexity, depth, and smoothness after a spot of oak aging. Common flavors added during this process include toffee, mocha, hazelnut, almond, chocolate, cedar, and tobacco smoke.

Common Types of Oak and Their Corresponding Flavors

French White Oak. French white oak is arguably the most popular type of oak used in wine aging. Its wealth of flavor derivatives, aromatic elements, and fine grains generate silken wines with concentrated floral and exotic fruit aromas. When aged right, wines that spend some time in French oak barrels tend to develop rounder tannins with subtle fruit, spice, and nutty undertones. This type of oak is predominantly used in aging highly responsive wines like Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

American White Oak. Compared to its French equivalent, this type of oak has lower amounts of tannins and wider grains. These properties allow the American white oak to add robustness to more fruit-forward and ‘clean’ wines. Its larger grains also enable faster oxygenation, thereby reducing the time needed to age wine. Common nuances imparted by this oak include sweet coconut, soda, and vanilla. This wood is also ideal for enriching hearty and full-bodied reds and creamy Chardonnays.

Eastern European Oak (Hungarian and Slavonian Oaks). Eastern European oaks are teeming with sweet and savory flavors. Think vanilla, burnt sugar, caramel, cedar, and dried spice. These types of oaks also yield the creamiest and softest vinos on the market. The only downside is that it takes more time for these oaks to interact fully with the wine. Wine makers use this oak to age fuller-bodied varietals like Petit Verdot and Malbec. These wines are structured to keep up with the plethora of aromas East European oak can impart, without losing their own unique flavors.