Oaks Barrels in Winemaking

Tuesday, August 7th, 2007 at 12:00 am

wine barrelsIt is a long standing tradition among win makers around the world to store and age wines in oak barrels. The oaks contain flavors and tannins which are considered essential for making red and some white wines. More specifically, the barrels adds vanilla and oak flavors to the wine which enhances its overall characteristics. Also, because oak barrels have tight grains, the wooden containers are leak free.

The age of the barrels determine how rich the "oak" flavors added into the wine. The younger the oak used for the barrel, the stronger the flavor. And the more used the barrel the less flavor it contains. However, different varieties of oak trees also have varying effects on the taste and character of the wine.

The European oak

Most of the so called European oaks come from France, the Quercus robur species being the most popular. Other manufacturers of oak barrels in Europe include Portugal and Eastern Europe. And most of the oak forests that are used for oak barrel production can be found in Vosges, Limousin, Sarthe and the central regions of Nièvre and Alliers.

The oaks from these forests have denser and tighter wood grains which adds more vanilla, spice, and butter flavors slowly to the wine than loosely grained oaks. Also, oak trees from different forests have their own distinct characteristics. Wine makers often select wood from different forests to achieve certain effects on their finished wine.

The American oak

American oak species Quercus alba is considered the most suitable oak variety for making wine barrels. Although most of North American oaks are wide grains, it is not a reason for them not to be used in wine barrels. The lack of grain in American oaks is compensated by a greater amount of the compound tyloses which makes the wood less porous meaning leakage is unlikely.

For years American oaks were disregarded and were generally considered as bad alternatives for French oaks. However, later they found out that the reason why American oaks did not perform as well as the French ones was because they were preparing the wood wrong. Once the Americans adapted the French way of preparing the oak, the quality of the wine barrels improved drastically.

Today, American oak wine barrels are well accepted wine barrel materials and in fact are becoming more popular since they costs less than their French wine barrel counterparts.

Keeping the costs down

Even though American oaks costs lower, the price is still steep and most wine makers are looking for alternatives to keep their production costs down. This is why the second-hand barrel market is quite popular.

Most top winemakers only use new oak for aging their wine. So the second hand market has a good supply of used oak win barrels. Some would purchase and replace the staves of the barrel with new oak to introduce new oak flavors to the wine.

While others settle with simply introducing oak chips or even staves of oak into a tank of wine. This is a lot cheaper than the business of cooperage but the final results can vary. Moreover, the practice is considered illegal in some countries.