For years some of the most captivating and celebrated wines around the world have been aged in oak. Cabernets of the 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 that are created with alternative and more affordable methods that barrel aging. But where did this widespread need for oak come from?
There’s a long history to using oak, and it takes us back thousands of years to ancient civilizations. The oldest vessels that predated oak barrels were called amphoras; these were large vessels that were made of clay that had a narrow opening which could be covered with a lid and even sealed with wax. While these could be airtight, which could preserve the wine, their weight and manufacture proved to be more difficult. Examples of amphoras date back to the ancient Egyptians, while some other civilizations such as the Mesopotamians would use very difficult to construct palm barrels. The use of amphoras spread and was used for centuries, and 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, mass production and transportation of wine become a necessity. Over two millennia ago, the Roman empire was flourishing across Europe and western Asia, which means they took with them their people, goods, and a major necessity – wine. Amphoras was still the vessel of choice, until the reaches of the Roman Empire entered Gaul in modern France, where wooden barrels were being crafted by local communities for the holding and transportation of beer. With the large amount of oak forests across Europe, it became a viable alternative to clay amphoras. Oak was easy to bend into barrels, and has a very tight grain, resulting in a more airtight environment which would preserve wine longer. It’s widely believed that these oak barrels used for beer was the inspiration for wine barrels.
However, what became a solution for transportation also had a positive effect on wine- they began to notice the oak barrels increased the pleasurability of drinking it. Slow integration of oxygen would gradually soften the wine. It would improve the flavor of many wines, and would also impart great structural qualities from tannins imparted from the wood. Naturally, if the wine spent longer time in the barrel, the stronger the flavors would result. Different levels of oak toasting would result in flavors such as spices, caramel, and vanilla. Overall, a more complex product with better ageability and an improved flavor meant that oak barrels became majorly impactful shift in the production of wine all across the region.
In the modern era, oak barrels remain as popular as ever. Barrels can be used for fermentation, or for aging, or even both. However, while many wines are well suited to oak aging, there are some that are not. Certain varietals are well suited to oak aging, including the Bordeaux varietals – Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Malbec, just to name a few. Many red varietals can see oak aging, some in small barrels, others in large vessels – which are less likely to add oak flavors or . Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc are examples of two white grapes that can be aged either with or without oak, and their styles become noticeably different. 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.
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!