Erik Neilson on November 28, 2016 0 Comments When the word “wine” is uttered, one of the first things that comes to mind for most people is the 750ml bottle. Others may instantly notice the image of a cluster of grapes popping into their head, or perhaps a vast, sprawling vineyard. Others still, however, will find themselves visualizing a room full of oak barrels. This is true even for those who don’t quite understand what the barrels actually do, which can be confusing at first. That being said, the “barrel effect” so to speak is not subtle or easy to miss — it can completely change a wine, sometimes transforming it into something completely magical. If you’ve ever toured a winery, the oak barrels you’ve most likely noticed aren’t just there for show. Here’s an overview of the basics of how oak barrels affect wine, which you can use to broaden your understanding of the wine world altogether. Oak = Flavor Enhancement There’s no getting around the fact that it would be a major blanket statement to claim that oaked wine is always better than unoaked wine. Indeed, there are countless examples of beautiful wines throughout the world that never see oak during their lifespans. Take a look at the most expensive wines in the world, however, and you’ll no doubt see that they’ve all been produced via oak aging. Oak can greatly affect the finished wine, often boosting its flavor to a marked degree and serving as the most important component in the product once bottled. As one might expect, not all oak barrels are created equal. Some are either very large or very small, affecting surface area and contact with the juice and changing how thoroughly the wine is influenced by the oak. Some barrels feature large grains, which can influence the wine to similar degrees. Other barrels are older or have been reused and may not have quite as much to lend to the wine. In the end, the type of barrel utilized will play a key role in how the wine matures and changes with time. Types of Oak Barrels When choosing which oak barrels to utilize in production, winemakers typically have three options: French oak, American oak and Hungarian/Eastern European oak. Without a doubt, French oak is the most popular option available for modern winemakers. French oak from certain forests is prized for its fine grain, and barrels produced in areas such as Alliers, Vosges and Tronçais can sell for upwards of $4,000 each. French Oak One of the reasons that French oak is so thoroughly prized for aging premium wines is because it’s able to add flavor compounds to the wine in a very subtle manner, unlike many other types of oak. Grapes such as Chardonnay, for example, can be overpowered by certain types of oak and are thus perfectly suited for aging in French oak barrels. American Oak The next most popular form of oak for barrel-aging is American oak, which is typically found in Missouri. American oak features a larger grain than most examples of French oak and thus imparts a much more robust flavor profile. Flavors such as coconut and vanilla make themselves immediately known, which is why bolder grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon take so well to American oak. Hungarian/Eastern European Oak The third most commonly used type of wood for wine barrels is Hungarian/Eastern European oak. Hungarian oak is rising in popularity for one main reason: it features the nuances of French oak without the high price tag. Upstart winemakers love to work with Hungarian oak for this reason, and grapes such as Malbec and Syrah do quite well in these types of barrels. In most cases, the flavor profile added to wines by Hungarian oak will be nutty in character, though flashes of vanilla and fresh cream are not uncommon. What Oak Adds While placing wine in barrels may have originated as a storage method, it quickly became clear that oak adds a great deal to whatever wine it touches. As stated above, one of the major components that oak can add to a wine is flavor, which can depend heavily upon the type of oak and its grain structure. Another element that must be considered, however, is the addition of tannins. Oak barrels leach tannins into the wine that lives inside of them, and the longer the period of time contact occurs, the more prominent the tannic nature of the wine will be. This is why many winemakers age wines that are light in tannins in the most tannic barrels they can find in order to boost their structure. Another element that oak can add to a wine is that of smokiness. Some examples of oak barrels are charred or “toasted” prior to being used for aging, which can lend flavors of caramel and smoke to the wine that wouldn’t otherwise be present. As expected, wines that are aged in charred oak for long periods of time can end up becoming almost too smokey, which is where the delicate balance necessary for producing quality wines comes in. Alternatives to Oak Barrels Oak barrels can get expensive, especially for winemakers who intend to use them for every vintage. Unsurprisingly, many producers have come up with alternatives to using barrels while still looking to find ways in which to incorporate the rich flavors of oak into their wines. Oak staves are often utilized, as are oak chips and cubes. Chips in particular can be quite effective given the amount of surface area they provide in terms of making contact with the wine. The result? A faster process than what typically occurs in barrel-aging, and one that tends to be far less expensive than the alternative. Oak barrels are no doubt mysterious, especially considering how thoroughly they can transform a wine. When properly utilized, however, they can create pure magic. One of the best ways to see for yourself what oak can do to a wine is to drink the same grape variety unoaked and oaked, side-by-side. Chances are you’ll discover the woody nuances inherent in the barrel-aged variety, and once you do, you may never want to turn back.