Oak aging has been used in winemaking for millennia, but the way it has been used has changed drastically. During the peak of roman civilization, wine would be transported in amphorae (clay casks) to every part of the kingdom, especially to soldiers on the various front lines. They tended to brake in transport however, so something less brittle was in need. Trees like palm were used to their toughness, but eventually, winemakers settled on oak because it was very strong, malleable, and found throughout the European continent. Oak could be bent into place, and toasted to impart smoky flavors. Tens of millions of amphorae were thrown out, quickly switching to the new oak casks, which were airtight, and could be used for decades if necessary.
Since oak has been used in storing wine for such a long time, our ancestors, going back over a thousand years grew accustomed to the flavors of oak in wine. Spices like clove, cinnamon, allspice, vanilla, caramel and even butter are flavors that many wine drinkers are subconsciously drawn to, just because of their heritage. These flavors started off as subtle notes from old casks wine was stored in, but as the new world wine culture developed, these flavors have really been showcased, as a significant flavor to be expressed in a wine.
It is no secret that every winemaker has a very specific style they like when it comes to oak aging. Some winemakers use secret barreling regimes, not giving away their secrets, and have major disagreements with each other on which style is best, and which is downright awful.
TYPES OF OAK
This is not an America vs France thing, there are some considerable differences in flavor seen from the two.
French oak is a softer flavored oak with a wider range of flavors, and also imparts a heavier tannin structure to the wines.
American oak has a more powerful flavor, with heavier spice, smokiness and vanilla flavors depending on toast, with less tannin structure imparted on wine.
EASTERN EUROPEAN OAK
Essentially French Oak but from a different location with different influences, and hasn’t been available for use until after the fall of the USSR.
- Hungarian oak is much like French Oak in flavor, but offers a very soft, creamy texture to the palate
- Czech Oak is sweeter and offers a rich nutty flavor, with a bit smoother tannin than oak from France, and offers interesting floral components to wines.
- Russian Oak is much like oak from France in flavor and tannin, but offers more intensity of those flavors.
“QUALITY” OF OAK – GRAIN
At every winery you’ve ever been to, you will hear the same thing…”we used the absolute best oak for this wine”. Truth is, when it comes down to it, if there was a such thing as the “absolute best barrels” they would run out of trees within a year or two. Every type of oak is better suited towards different styles of wines, and different varietals, so the “best barrels” depends on a winemakers specific tastes.
The greatest winemakers are obsessed with the little details when it comes to oak, down to the point that they know the exact acre within a forest from which a barrel’s oak came from. In each area, oak pulls in flavors from around them, and depending on the surrounding environment. Just like knowing the flavors of a vineyard, winemakers grow to know the personality of each forest.
Every tree, as it grows, creates a layer of softer porous wood during the spring and summer, and then a harder nonporous shell during the winter. A years growth (1 porous section, followed by a non porous section) is known as a grain, and each year, it pulls in new flavors from the environment around it, trapping them within the wood. Because of the porous regions in the wood, a wine barrel essentially BREATHES. This is how wine is aged. Over the course of many months, the wine slowly evaporates through the grains, and slowly oxygen takes it’s place.
The “grain” is how large these porous regions are. The larger the regions the looser the grain, the smaller the regions are the tighter the grain.
COURSE GRAIN (loose)
In areas where oak trees grow more quickly, grains will be much looser, with larger bubbles of air. It will not allow a winemaker to age the wine as long, because more air will be reaching the wine inside. Loose grain oak will also impart flavors on the wine much more quickly.
FINE GRAIN (tight)
In areas where oak trees grow slowly, grains will be much tighter, with tiny little bubbles of air. Winemakers can used these to age wine for a much longer time, which will allow for larger tannins in the wine. Less air will reach the wine inside and flavors take longer to develop.
ARGUMENTS FOR EACH
Loose grain is useful when grapes picked already have considerable tannin and need some softening up. It allows a winemaker to pack a lot of flavor into a wine in a short amount of time. Considering most wine in the US is consumed within the first 6 hours after purchase, it makes a lot of sense. If a wine is going to be released young and consumed young, if a winemaker used loose grain, it will soften the tannins and make for a more pleasurable experience. Loose grain barrels are much cheaper, and lots of money is saved in storage (less overhead cost) saving a lot of money for the winery in the long-term.
Tight grain is best for something that will be aged at all. If it is a 2014 vintage, released in 2016, and you want it to still be good in 2020, it better have been in tight grain oak. Aging in tight grain takes a while which means powerful tannin. In some Italian wines, like Brunello di Montalcino DOCG, it is required to age a wine for 24 months in wood so that the quality and age worthiness are present in the wine. Tight grain allows a winemaker to better assess the progress of flavor being imparted in the wine, so that when they believe it is perfect, it can be taken out of the oak, and bottled. In loose grain oak, this window is MUCH smaller. As far as flavor is concerned, tight grain allows for integration of flavor and tannin together because both are released from the wood, into the wine, at a slower rate. Think of it this way, if you are baking a cake, and it’s supposed to take 50 minutes to cook, but you only have 30 minutes, you don’t turn the oven up from 375 to 500…the pie will either light on fire, or completely ruin the flavor. If you cook it for 50 minutes at 375F, and then let it sit for a while to cool, those flavors will sing.
NEXT TIME I WILL COVER:
- OAK TOAST
- OLD WORLD VS NEW WORLD OAK USE
- HOW TO MAKE A CHOICE AS A WINEMAKER BETWEEN BARRELS
- VARIETALS AND HOW THEY RESPOND TO OAK
- OAK ALTERNATIVES