Do you ever wonder why your favorite Cabernet exhibits notes of mint and chocolate, or why one Zinfandel may taste and feel spicier than another, even though they come from the same region? Although the terrior (geography, geology and climate) in which the grapes are grown imparts a large amount of character in the wine, the barrels in which they are aged contributes to a lot of the subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, aromas and tastes we find in our wines.
Barrels have been used in the winemaking process since the time Julius Cesar invaded France, and they have been the choice vessel ever since. The shapes and sizes of the barrels used by winemakers have changed dramatically over time. Today most winemakers choose to age their wine in smaller, newer more flavorful 60-gallon (or smaller) barrels, rather than the large, old flavorless casks.
THAT WAS THEN…
Not only have the shapes and sizes of the barrels changed, so have the choices in the types of wood used. Historically, wood type was a question of tradition, wine variety, economics and personal taste. Surprisingly, redwood was commonly used in the construction of puncheons or large upright containers, many times larger than the now common 60-gallon barrel. The use of redwood died out, as it proved to be too rigid to bend the staves and gave the wine a yellow tint. Chestnut wood was also used because of the high tannins, a contributor to texture and mouthfeel, but proved too porous and needed paraffin coating to prevent excessive evaporation.
THIS IS NOW…
Over the years, oak has become the wood of choice when barrel aging wine because of its strength, workability and lack of undesirable flavor or color extractives. Oak is resilient, enabling the staves to be shaped and bent without breaking, and has a tight grain, that allows for slow oxidation. Oak is high in tannin, an important component in proper amounts that allows the red wines to age by using up oxygen, which would otherwise spoil the wine. The tannins in oak also contribute to texture, mouthfeel and the stabilization of color over time. Most important the oak adds aromatic and flavor elements that can make or break a wine.
TYPES OF OAK
Just as there are a wide variety of wines, there are also many varieties of oak, French oak, American, Oak (white oak being the preference) and Hungarian oak are a few of the more popular choices these days among winemakers worldwide. Within these types, there are sub-types based on the region in which the oak originated. For instance, French oak could be representative of the forest regions of Allier, Nevers and Vosges. Virginia, Missouri and Pennsylvania are just a few of the regions in the U.S. where we could find American oak.
FRENCH OAK VS AMERICAN OAK
The type of oak a winemaker uses is based on a number of factors including economics, wine varietal, and market and personal preferences. Economics plays a big part in the type of barrel used. American oak barrels average in price at $400.00 each and French oak barrels can sometimes be two to three times more. The variety of wine being made can also influence the type of oak used. French oak is commonly used to barrel age Cabernet Sauvignon, where as Zinfandel, Petite Syrah and Syrah are more frequently barrel aged in American oak, a practice seen more often in California. The choice of French oak or American oak is also a personal preference of the winemaker, and can reflect the market preferences for which they are making the wine. American oak is noted as imparting a more “oaky” aroma and flavor, along with more vanilla tones. French oak often times reflects notes of clove, coffee and chocolate with more subtle oak flavors and aromas.
WHAT WE USE
To learn more about the types of barrels Scott uses, pour yourself a glass of your favorite Scott Harvey wine and check out our video on YouTube.