Some of the most captivating and celebrated wines around the world are made with oak aging. Cabernets of Napa Valley, Grand Gru White Burgundy, Bordeaux, Brunello… the list goes on. Consistently the most sought after rare wines, as well as wines scored favorably by critics, have all utilized oak aging in some capacity. This widespread global desire for oak characteristics has also trickled down to the everyday affordable wines. Many of these wines at low price points achieve the influence of oak aging with alternative and more affordable methods than barrel aging. So, where did this widespread taste for oak come from?
Within the wine world, there’s a long history of oak aging that dates back thousands of years. First, amphorae are the oldest winemaking vessels use which predate the use of oak barrels. These are large vessels made of clay with a narrow opening, which is covered with a lid and sometimes sealed with wax. Amphora are air tight, which helps to preserve the wine for extended periods of time. However, their weight and manufacturing process were a challenge for scalability.
The first record of amphorae in winemaking dates back to the ancient Egyptians. While some other civilizations, such as the Mesopotamians, would use very difficult to construct palm barrels to age and transport their wines. Eventually, the use of amphorae spread to other civilizations where they remained in practice for centuries. Historical examples can be found all over the great empires of the Mediterranean, many of them preserved in museums.
As civilizations expanded and populations continued to grow, wine’s mass production and transportation became necessary. Over two millennia ago, the Roman empire flourished across Europe and western Asia. With every new territory conquered, the Romans brought their people, goods, and wine with them. At this time, amphorae were still the wine vessel of choice. Yet this tradition changed when the reaches of the Roman Empire entered Gaul in modern France.
The French were crafting wooden barrels in their local communities for the holding and transportation of beer. With the large amount of oak forests across Europe, oak aging became a viable alternative to clay amphoras. Oak was easy to bend into barrels and has a very tight grain. As a result, the wine is in an airtight environment which preserves the wine well. Thanks to the French beer industry, the practice of oak aging wine was born.
Effects of Oak Aging
Subsequently, what started as a suitable solution for transportation also had a positive effect on wine. Winemakers began to notice the oak barrels had a pleasurable impact on the wine. Oak aging allows for an extremely slow integration of oxygen, which gradually softens the wine. This process improves the flavor of many wines and also contributes great structural qualities, such as tannins imparted from the wood. Logically, if the wine spends more time in barrel, the resulting oak-influenced flavors are stronger. Plus, different levels of oak toasting results in various flavors, such as spices, caramel, and vanilla. Overall, a more complex product with improved flavor and greater aging potential led towards an industry wide shift toward oak-aging.
In the modern era, oak barrels remain as popular as ever. Barrels are used for fermentation, aging, or both. However, while many wines are well suited to oak aging, there are some that are not. Bordeaux varietals – Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Malbec – are just a few red grape varieties suitable for barrel aging. Oak aging enhances many other red wines, some in small barrels and others in large vessels. A smaller oak vessel will impart more oak influence. This is because more of the wine’s surface area is in contact with the barrel. Whereas wine in a larger oak vessel will comparatively have less surface area in contact with the oak.
Chardonnay and Pinot Gris are examples of two white grapes that can be aged either with or without oak. Consequently, their styles vary widely depending on whether or not they were ferment or aged in oak barrels.
Naturally, oak barrels are pricey to construct and use, which drives up the prices of the wine. The most prized wood tends to be French, while great examples of American, Hungarian, and Italian oak exist as well.
For wines at lower price points, winemakers can choose to impart oak flavors using oak staves or chips. These are added to the wine while it’s in stainless steel vats. The oak staves or chips will impart oak flavors without the added cost of purchasing and storing barrels.
While oak may not be the perfect fit for every wine, it really enhances so many wines that it’s not difficult to see why it’s been the vessel of choice for aging and storing wine until the current day!
In the mood for great wine yet?
Take our quiz to discover the best wines from around the world matched to your taste.Take your wine style quiz