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THE SECRET OF OAK BARREL AGING


      Small oak barrels have become intimely linked with winemaking, particularly in the past twenty years. The effect of new oak barrels on wine aging is determinant in the making of the finished wine. It will smooth the wine, improve the mouthfeel, stabilize the color, and add its own flavors to the wine's aromas. However, the cost of oak barrels (particularly French barrels) make their use limited to the production of higher quality wines which can sell for a higher price.

      The californian wine industry uses a large amount of new oak barrels, sometimes to some excess with the resulting production of over-oaked wines. It is important for the winemaker to use new oak barrels only as an ingredient in the making of the finished wines; the oaky flavors being a complement of the wine's fruit in the production of a more complex and age-worthy wines.



The traditional French barrique

      The production of oak barrels is one of the oldest human activity, using century old techniques. A good qualiry oak barrel is first made from premium wood. Good oak are found in numerous regions of the world. The French forests constitute an important reserve for higher quality oak trees such as the quercus sessiflora , which possess a fine and tight grain texture developed during its slow growth. The american oak barrels are made from another type of white oak called quercus alba . This oak possesses only 40% of the extractable phenolics of European oak, and brings rich flavors to the wine such as the traditional coconut and vanilla aromas. The selection of American or French oak will have an important influence on the style of the wines and are an important financial investment for the winery.

      The French oak staves are hand cuts from each tree cuts and are store for a long period in the outside weather, a process call seasoning . The seasoning has been proved to be essential in the leeching of green tannins out of the wood and in some other physical transformation.
      The barrel maker will assemble the staves together using hoops to hold them together. It is a really spectacular process to observe, the staves being bend over an open fire. Once assembled, the barrel can be toasted over the fire for a definite time. The toast of the barrel increase with the length it is left over the fire. The winemaker can specify the degree of toast needed for its barrel. In fact, he can ask for a low, medium, or high toast barrel, depending on its need.


New barrels stored in the cellar. They are usually wrapped in plastic.

      When a wine ages in small oak barrel it will have a profound effect on the wine flavors and taste. For example, the wine will have a limited contact with oxygen, providing some oxidative aromas and accelerating the aging process. When new oak barrels are used, many oak-related flavors and elements are going to be transfered to the wine. The winemaker needs to use is own judgment to avoid the excessive use of new oak wich will end-up covering and hiding all the others wine aromas.