The Mighty Oak

By Posted on Apr 29 2009 | By

oak-tree1Aged for 15 months in French and American oak.

This line—or one similar—is seen on the back of countless wine bottles, or accompanying tasting notes, to describe the importance of the marriage of wine and oak.  No other wood has achieved the ability to enhance the aroma and flavor of wine.  After the vine, oak is the most important plant in producing quality wine.

So how did this committed relationship begin?  And why has it endured so long?

While many woods can be used to craft a barrel, among them cherry, walnut, chestnut, and pine, only oak emerged as perfectly suited for the transportation and storage of wine. Other woods were either to porous, which led to leakage, or too overpowering aromatically, conveying odors that detracted from the enjoyment of the liquid stored therein. 

The use of oak barrels to transport wine has a centuries long history.  The vessels were watertight and easy to move.  The casks could be transported by wagon or ship with little risk of loss or breakage.

A lamentable tale turned golden, occurred in the 1980s when Chile first began focusing on exporting its wines.  Sadly, the initial efforts were a failure.  It seems the Chileans had grown accustomed to their wine being aged in a type of birch wood called rauli. While the natives enjoyed the wine’s odd aroma and flavor, international markets rejected the musty character it displayed.  When vintners realized how the world perceived their wines, they quickly switched to oak and the ascent of Chilean wines began in earnest.

wine-barrel1Among the numerous benefits of oak is that wine slowly evaporates in the vessels.  Care must be taken to add back any loss since the liquid oxidizes in the presence of air.  Up to three percent of wine can be lost through this process.  The French call this loss the “angels’ share.”  Of course, they do not begrudge the Seraphim and Cherubim their little dollop of evening wine, obviously enjoyed after the winemaker leaves for the evening.  But, the angels know they are making a valued contribution to the wine’s ultimate taste.  Evaporation enhances flavors, creates depth and softens mouth feel, producing qualities not as easily attained when aged in stainless steel tanks. Virtually all quality red wines, and many whites, especially Chardonnay, undergo oak aging.

Over time, winemakers learned that smaller casks possessed the perfect wine to oak ratio.   The most popular barrels today are the Bordeaux, holding 225 liters, and the Burgundy, with a 227-liter capacity.  Each vessel produces about 300 bottles of wine.  The familiar scene of a wine cellar, containing row upon row of sleeping oak barrels, has come to embody our image of a winery.

As oak became the wood of choice for enhancing the quality of wine, two particular species became favorites; French and American white oak.  French oak has a more subtle effect on a wine’s character because it is tighter grained and the staves are hand split.  American white oak is a bit more porous and the staves are machine cut, producing more intense flavors of vanilla and coconut.  Both woods produce a wide range of aromas and flavors, enhancing the final product.  Because of their distinct qualities, winemakers often age their wines in both types of barrels, and then blend the final product to build complexity.  You might say in the world of wine barrels, Maurice Chevalier and John Wayne work together to provide us our finest wines.

The creation of a barrel is performed by an artisan called a cooper.  It is a highly sought after skill that is reflected in the cost of a barrel.  An American vessel runs around $400 a piece and its French companion can exceed $1,000.  If you have ever pondered why some quality wines are so expensive, consider that highly rated château in France often use new barrels exclusively to age their wines, adding dramatically to the cost of the finished bottle. And a barrel will last only about five years.  After that, the oak elements that contribute character fade, and the barrel can only be used for neutral storage. 

barrelCoopers create barrels by forming the staves in a circle while slowly forcing metal bands around them.  Simultaneously, the barrel is rotated over a small fire to soften the wood and make it malleable enough to bend the staves into the traditional barrel shape.  This adds strength and produces a tight seal to prevent leakage.  However, over the last forty years or so, coopers have learned that the intensity of heating-—or toasting—-conveys a wide range of flavors to aged wine.  Today, barrel toasting has become both art and science.  Wineries can order barrels capable of producing specific flavor and aroma profiles.  The range of these components is impressive and includes almond, clove, vanilla, pepper, chocolate, tobacco, cedar, coffee, walnut, bacon, toasted bread and more.   Vintners order them light, medium or heavy toasted, depending on the characters they wish to highlight in their wines.

culpepercourthouseCulpeper County contributes in a unique way to the production of wine barrels used around the world.  Just north of the city of Culpeper, on Route 229, a lumber mill owned by the Ramoneda Brothers, specializes in the harvesting of Virginia White Oak.  The firm produces staves that are ultimately shipped to California and Europe for wine barrel production.  Next time you pass by the mill, take note of the neatly stacked tall racks of oak staves undergoing air aging.  In a few years, you might well be drinking a wine that was aged in a barrel crafted from staves produced in our county.  Not only is Virginia producing some wonderful wines, but it’s also contributing a key ingredient in their production elsewhere.

Given the cost of barrels today, it should come as no surprise that some wineries are switching to oak chips and staves, placed inside stainless steel tanks, to create the effect of an oak aged wine at a fraction of the cost.  Australia is a leader in the use of oak chips. This has enabled many of its producers to lower the cost per bottle, while creating wines with oak impact.  Producers of fine wine eschew using such shortcut methods. But, if correctly employed, certain elements of an oak aged wine can be crafted using less expensive alternatives such as chips.

As we reflect on the qualities of our favorite wines, let’s keep in mind the role oak plays. An oak tree used for barrel making can easily be over a hundred years old.  It’s possible to taste a wine today that was aged in oak that was just a young sapling during the civil war. So the next time you open a bottle of wine, take a moment to contemplate the history of the barrel in which it was aged.  If you focus hard enough, you might even hear the joyful strains of Dixie as you sip your Cabernet.

img_0149_1Could it possibility be the oak enhanced wine singing the praises of the cocoon in which it was nurtured?





Published April 30, 2009, in the Culpeper Times.

Categories : WINE ARTICLES