While an oaked wine (otherwise known as wooded wine) can be a bit of an acquired taste, when employed to perfection, most people will at least appreciate, if not enjoy, the diverse flavours that are imparted by an oak barrel. So why do winemakers use oak as opposed to stainless-steel or concrete tanks? Oak adds a range of flavours including vanilla, cloves, butter, popcorn, toast, spice and char as well as providing complexity to a wine’s aroma and taste. Without question stainless-steel and concrete tanks have their place in winemaking as they also create ideal conditions for specific unwooded wines, but that is the subject of another blog.
The porous nature of oak wood allows for just the right amount of oxygenation and evaporation and it is this gradual introduction of oxygen that results in a smoother rounder finished product. Oak is the ideal timber for a wine barrel because it is strong and can be bent without breaking. It has a neutral wood smell and is high in tannins, which adds an important flavour element, as well as allowing red wines to age at an ideal rate. Oak provides gradual extraction of wood flavours that are imparted into the wine and the use of oak barrels has been a long-held tradition used in winemaking throughout the world. Even in modern wineries where production involves the use of stainless-steel tanks, oak chips contained in fabric bags or barrel staves might be used to assume some of the role of a conventional barrel. Most winemakers believe though there is no substitute for the real thing when the budget allows for it.
Generally, Margaret River winemakers are using either French oak (Quercus robur) French white oak (Quercus petrea) or American white oak (Quercus alba) however barrels from all over the world wherever oak is grown, including Asian and Eastern European regions, are also used. Experienced winemakers use a combination of different oaks (depending on the grape varieties used) for a specific amount of time to make each wine and for this reason oak plays a very important part in creating wines of distinction. This of course is something that our local Margaret River winemakers undeniably excel at and after years of experimentation a carefully constructed oak regime can be a crucial element in making a winery’s signature vintage.
So how do they choose which oak to use? Each oak variety has unique characters which a winemaker will select it for. For example, French oak is much tighter grained than American oak and imparts more subtle savoury and spicy flavours and firmer, but silkier tannins while the American oak gives a stronger oak flavour, sweeter coconut and vanillin characters and a more robust mid-palate to the wine. Experts in barrel production understand that even different microclimates can affect the qualities of an oak barrel despite being the exact same variety. French oaks are known to have noticeable variations depending on which region they are from and this is where the decision making comes in. Many vineyards use barrels from a variety of regions across the globe, carefully matching the grape varieties with a barrel type and age which the winemaker believes will enhance the natural characteristics of their wines.
An oak barrel is the ideal environment for encouraging the necessary metabolic changes, such as malolactic fermentation (which makes wine taste and feel creamier on the palate) to take place and this creates what are known as secondary aromas. This is in contrast to primary aromas which come from the grape variety itself. Oak staves are seasoned before they are fashioned into barrels. Natural seasoning is a slow process usually taking a few years to complete. Kiln drying is another option which is faster but it doesn’t soften tannin in wine as much and therefore is not as ideal.
The average life of a barrel is five years, however after this time a specialist in making wine barrels (known as a cooper) can shave each stave (barrel piece) to reveal fresh oak. The staves are then toasted and sometimes charred with fire before being reused. New barrels release bolder flavours than previously used barrels and while that can be fantastic, used barrels are often preferred as they impart a more subtle or delicate flavour and aroma into the wine. A mixture of old and new oak is also frequently employed to achieve the desired amount of tannin and oak flavours of a particular vintage.
New standard sized oak barrels generally range in price from $900 to $2000, however much larger barrels that are sometimes used will fetch a comparatively higher price. Given that oak trees can take hundreds of years to reach an age where they can be felled for barrel production and that they have to make an overseas journey to get here, the price of oak barrels is actually very reasonable. The long journey from forest oak to cellar barrel tells quite a story that delights our senses as its unique properties help to craft our favourite wines. It’s no wonder that the ‘perfect’ oak barrels are sought after by Margaret River’s winemakers as once acquired they will consistently weave their magic, assisted by time-honoured winemaking traditions, to create spectacular local vintages.
It can take anything from months to years to mature wine in oak barrels. For example, many Cabernet Sauvignons in the Margaret River region have spent up to two years in a barrel before they are released to the market. So next time you are tasting a fabulous oaked Margaret River wine, even if it’s still not really your cup of tea (yet), hopefully you will take a moment to appreciate the role a majestic oak tree has played in creating the flavours and aromas of that carefully crafted drop. Three cheers for the majestic oak tree.
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