Winemaking is a craft, but you can also consider it an art. And the quality of a wine depends on many different factors, including varietals, weather, and production methods. Oaking is one of these production methods. The exposure to oak wood can significantly increase wine quality and taste. But why is that? What makes oaked wine special?
What Is Oaked Wine?
Wine is called oaked wine when it had contact with oak wood during the production process. As a result, it changed in color, texture, or taste. Winemakers use different oaking methods and numerous types of oak to improve the quality of their wines.
The History of Oaked Wine
The practice of oaking wine goes back more than 2,000 years to the Roman Empire. For the Romans, wine was not only a luxury food. It was also an essential part of their diet. Water was often contaminated during these times, and drinking it could result in serious health issues. But wine was safe to drink. And in combination with its intoxicating effect, this advantage made it the preferred drink for many Romans. Even the Roman armies took wine with them during their campaigns because it could provide extra calories to malnourished troops.
Traditionally, Roman traders and armies transported wine in clay amphoras. They could seal these containers to protect the wine from oxygen and prevent it from going off. But the amphoras’ weight made it difficult to transport big volumes of wine over long distances. Therefore, the Romans were eager to find alternative containers.
By that time, traders in Mesopotamia, an area that today corresponds to Iraq, Kuwait, Eastern Syria, and Southeastern Turkey, used palm wood barrels to transport liquids. But palm wood had two flaws: It was expensive and also difficult to bend. So it didn’t qualify as a proper alternative for the Romans.
Ancient Wine Amphoras
When the Romans encountered the Gauls that settled in Western Europe, they learned about oak barrels. The Gauls used these containers primarily to transport beer. Oakwood was easy to bend and available everywhere in the forests of Western and Central Europe. Thus, manufacturing oak barrels was much easier than making palm wood barrels. Consequently, it took only two centuries until oak barrels had replaced amphoras in the whole Roman Empire.
Soon, the Romans realized that their wines changed their characteristics when having contact with the oakwood. They became softer and smoother, and they also developed new aromas. Based on this insight, winemakers started oaking wine intentionally. And over the centuries, they have developed many different ways to do so.
Types of Oak for Winemaking
Throughout the centuries, winemakers have developed many different methods to oak wine. Today, different types of oak are used for this purpose. French and American oak are the most common types of woods for oaking wine.
French oak is dominant in Europe, and it’s also the most expensive type of oak. High-quality barrels of 225 liters cost between 800 and 3,000 USD. To produce them, barrel-makers use primarily two species of oak trees:
French Oak Tree Without Leaves
Quercus petraea (Sessile Oak) grows mainly in the forests of Alliers, Neviers, Tronçais, and Vosges in Central and Eastern France. It has a tight grain, is rather soft, and rich in aromatic compounds. Many high-quality Pinot Noir wines age in sessile oak barrels.
Quercus robur (Pedunculate Oak) comes from the Southern part of France, for instance, from the Limousin. It contains fewer aromatic components but more tannins, so it imparts more astringency on wine. Thus, it’s vintners’ first pick to raise the level of tannins in their wines. That’s the case for producers of Chardonnay wines.
In the United States and most other New World countries, it’s more common to make wine barrels from American oak. Barrels are available for 300 to 800 dollars, so American oak is more affordable than French oak. Another difference is the intensity of flavors that the wood imparts on wine: American oak usually provides much stronger aromas than European oak. Two species of trees are predominantly used:
Quercus alba (White Oak) is widespread in the forests of the Eastern United States, but also in Missouri, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. It grows faster than European oak species, has wider grains, and contains fewer extractable tannins.
Quercus garryana (Oregon White Oak or Garry Oak) has gained some popularity across barrel makers in Oregon. Its characteristics are closer to the European oak species.
Other Types of Oak
Besides French and American oak, vintners use several other types of oak:
- Hungarian oakwood was the preferred material for wine barrels across Europe in the early 19th century. It comes from the Zemplén Mountains, close to the Northern border of Hungary. Due to the volcanic soils in this area, trees grow slower and smaller, but they create tight grains. Hungarian oak offers a soft and smooth texture and imparts woody, sugary, and spicy flavors to the wines that are stored in it.
- Russian oak from the Adifey region along the Black Sea is less common in Europe. But some winemakers prefer it because it’s less expensive than French or Hungarian oak.
- Canadian oak comes from the same species as American oak. But in terms of characteristics, it’s somewhere in the middle between American and French oak. A couple of Canadian winemakers use it, but outside of Canada, it isn’t really popular.
Wine Barrel Sizes
Besides the wood type, the containers for oaking play an essential role in the process. Especially the barrel size is vital. The smaller a barrel is, the higher will be the share of wine that’s in contact with the wood. And the more wine is in touch with the wood, the stronger will be the oak’s impact on the wine in terms of flavor.
Across the world, vintners know numerous types of barrels with different sizes. These are some of the common types:
- Fuder: The Fuder (also: Stückfass) is a barrel with a capacity of 1,200 liters. It’s used in Germany, especially in the wine regions along the rivers Rhein and Mosel. Varieties are the “Halbstückfass” with a capacity of 600 liters that’s popular in the Rheingau region and the “Doppelstückfass” with 2,400 liters from Pfalz and Rheinhessen.
- Madeira Drum: The Madeira drum is the standard barrel for making Madeira wine, a fortified wine from Portugal. It holds 650 liters and is made from thick staves of French oak.
- Port Pipe: Similar to the Madeira Drum, the Port pipe comes from Portugal and has a capacity of 650 liters. Wineries that produce Port wine rely on this cask. But distillers also let whiskey age in seasoned Port pipes.
More Details on Port Wine: PORT WINE – THE COMPLETE GUIDE FOR WINE LOVERS
- Sherry Butt: With between 480 and 500 liters, these tasks from European oak wood are the most common barrels for Sherry production. Like Port pipes, Sherry butts play an important role in the whiskey industry. Therefore, some barrel-makers focus on producing barrels for Scotch distilleries.
- Sherry Puncheon: Another barrel for Sherry production is the Puncheon. It has a capacity of 500 liters, but unlike a Sherry butt, it’s made from thin staves of Spanish oak. Seasoned Puncheons are good barrels for whiskey aging as well.
French Oak Barrels
- Barrique Bordelaise: Barrique barrels hold 225 liters. They are the preferred barrels of Bordeaux winemakers, and they are also the most common containers in the wine industry across the world.
- Barrique Bourgogne: The Bourgogne barrique is slightly bigger than the Bordelaise version with a capacity of 228 liters. It’s the standard cask for vintners that make Burgundy wine.
The Difference Between Old Oak and New Oak
Besides the oak type and the barrel size, wood age is another factor that vintners consider when oaking their wines. In general, they differ between new oak and old oak. The nomination doesn’t come from the age of the barrels or the trees they are made from, though. Instead, it refers to the number of times that the barrels have already been used for oaking wine.
An oak barrel is called new when a maximum of three wine charges aged in it. In contrast, an old barrel was used at least four times for aging wine. The older an oak barrel is, the fewer new flavors will it impart on the wine. Thus, to add the typical woody, spicy, and sugary aromas, winemakers need to use new barrels. Nevertheless, aging wine in old barrels contributes to adding structure and making it softer and smoother.
Alternatives to Oak Wood
During the last centuries, winemakers used barrels made from different types of wood. Among them were acacia, beech, cherry tree, poplar, and chestnut. None of them provided the same benefits as oak. Most of them are too soft and less dense, so they don’t make stable and airproof containers. Besides, only chestnut wood imposes similar aromas on wine as oak. But chestnut has another problem: It’s prone to woodworms that consume wood and make it brittle and porous. So, in the end, only oak wood makes a good wine barrel.
Alternatives to Oak Barrels
We’ve already talked about the prices of oak barrels. Depending on the type of wood, they range from 500 to 3,000 dollars for a Barrique of 225 liters. For some winemakers, these prices are too high. Thus, they developed more affordable ways to make oaked wine:
- Staves are big planks of oak wood. Winemakers add them to the wine while it ferments or ages in steel tanks. This method is much less costly than barrel-oaking, but the effect is also less intense. Just like barrels, it’s possible to use oak staves for multiple charges of wine.
- Oak chips are smaller versions of staves. Typically, these slices aren’t bigger than one square inch (3x3cm). Like staves, vintners add them to wine that ferments or ages in steel tanks.
- Powder is even more granular than oak chips. As a consequence, it doesn’t impart significant oak characteristics on the wine. However, it can help remove unwanted vegetal aromas from it to improve the overall drinking experience.
- Oak essence is a liquid that is extracted from oak wood or other plant matter. It contains concentrated tannins and is a very cheap substitute for oakwood. Wine laws prohibit the use of these essences in many wine regions. So it’s rather unlikely that you will find a high-quality wine that was in contact with oak essence during the production process.
All of these alternatives have a critical disadvantage to barrel-oaking: They don’t expose the wine to air. So wines that are oaked with staves, chips, powder, or oak essence can’t develop the complexity and smoothness that barrel-aged wines have. With this disadvantage, each of these alternative oaking methods is a trade-off between costs and quality.
The Difference Between Roasted Oak and Unroasted Oak
It is a common practice among barrel makers to expose their casks to fire after manufacturing them. They either light an open fire inside the barrel or use a handheld torch.
This toasting enhances the natural flavors of the oak wood and also activates new aromas that the wood can impart on wine. The longer the toasting takes, the more intense will these flavors be. Barrel makers distinguish three levels of toasting, typically lasting between 20 to 60 minutes:
- Light toasting causes a slight color change to the wood. It creates subtle aromas of vanilla, caramel, cinnamon, and clove.
- Medium toasting results in brown-toned wood and imparts significant flavors of vanilla, roasted nuts, coffee, cocoa, brown sugar, or allspice.
- Heavy toasting provides a dark-toned wood that adds smoky flavors as well as aromas of chocolate, coffee, roasted nuts, toffee, or nutmeg.
Toasting is common for barrels, staves or chips, and both American and European oak.
How Does Oaked Wine Taste?
When wine gets in contact with oak, it slowly absorbs some of the components of the wood. As a result, it changes in color, smell, and taste.
One of the most significant changes affects the level of tannins. Wood, like many other plants, including wine grapes, contains tannins. And the longer it stays in contact with the wine, the more tannins make their way into the wine. As a result, oaked wine is more tannic than unoaked wine.
More Details on Tannins in Wine: WHAT ARE TANNINS AND WHAT DO THEY DO IN WINE?
Oak also adds new flavors to the wine. It contains components called phenols. These phenols contribute new aromas when they get in touch with the wine. For instance, a phenol called Vanillin adds vanilla flavors. Another one, Eugenol, imparts notes of clove. Other aromas that oak can impart on wine are dried fruit, almonds, tobacco, coffee, chocolate, honey, nuts, spices, caramel, woody, and smoky notes.
Another substantial effect is the concentration of flavors. Oak barrels aren’t completely airproof. So the wine inside has a bit of exposure to air and evaporates very slowly. During this process, its flavors concentrate in the remaining wine and create a more intense bouquet.
The contact with air and wood softens and smoothens the wine and gives it a more silky texture. Together with the aromas that the oak imparts on the wine, it creates more complexity that leads to a much better drinking experience.
Finally, oaked wine changes in color. White wine typically gets paler during fermentation in an oak container. In contrast, its color becomes darker if the wine has contact with oak wood only for maturation. For red wine, the change in color isn’t as significant. It takes an enormous amount of time to see a darker and more intense tone of red.
Which Wines Are Oaked?
Many red wines get in contact with oak at some point in the production process. Especially bold wines get their complexity from long periods of oaking. Oaked red wines are:
- Pinot Noir
- Cabernet Sauvignon
For white wine, oaking is rather uncommon. The majority of whites never get in touch with oak. However, some white wines do get oaked. Here are some examples of white oaked wine:
- Chardonnay wines from the New World, including the United States, Australia, and Chile
- White Bordeaux blends, made from Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, and Muscadelle grapes
- White Burgundy from the Côte de Baune area
- Spanish White Rioja
Shopping Tips For Oaked Wine
Shopping oaked wine is challenging because many winemakers don’t clarify whether they oaked their wine on the bottle label. Nevertheless, you can find some indicators:
- Wine Color: As mentioned, it’s rather unusual to oak whites but it’s common for reds.
- Age: The older a wine is, the higher is the chance that it aged in oak.
- Price: Oaking, especially in barrels, is expensive, and these costs are reflected in prices. Oaked wines typically cost 25 USD or more per bottle of 750 ml.
Oaking is a winemaking technique with so many different aspects that it’s hard to understand it truly just by reading about it. So if you really want to get what the role of oak is, you should compare the taste of oaked and unoaked wines yourself.