The use of Oak barrels in the wine making process has become a standard procedure in the wine industry today, allowing producers to playfully develop the characteristic of their wines in terms of their taste, aroma and mouth feel. Who would have guessed that such an important and valued process was discovered by accident?
Wooden barrels have been dated to their first use in the Iron age (800-900 BCE) then used for holding various consumables such as oil, milk, water, beer and of course wine. But it was not until International trade among people started expanding that their true value was realized. Apart from the fact that these sturdy containers were far superior in strength than their clay-counterparts and much easier the transport and maneuver, it was soon discovered that certain items (such as wine and beer) actually benefited from being stored in wood containers.
It is thought that if it had not been for this accidental discovery, wine makers would never have thought of using wood in the wine making process at all, especially in today’s age where the use of non-reactive metals (such as stainless steel) reigns supreme.
But ageing wine in oak barrels not only evokes a sense of romantic nostalgia for the consumer, but can alter its chemical composition entirely. In red wines, the oak promotes gradual oxidation- I know you’re thinking “isn’t that what you DON’T want”, but in this case it is something most red wines need to make them less acidic, whilst also enhancing their colour and chemical stability. The oxygen is gradually introduced to the wine over a period of months by way of racking the wine from barrel to barrel, and is thus done in a controlled manner.
Ageing both white and red wine in oak barrels also imparts characteristics in taste and aroma such as sweet vanilla flavours, toasty aromas, notes of tea and tobacco and more structural tannin. The altering of tannin levels also changes the “mouth feel” of the wine, often being described as making the wine “smoother” or “softer”.
The variety and quality of flavours given off by the oak barrels to the wine differs with the type of oak used as well as its manufacturing details, and these differ so vastly that each wine maker has his/her personal preference and opinion on which is best to use. Currently, the most common types of oak barrels used are American, French and Eastern European. Although technically a barrel can be used 100 times over to store wine, chemically it loses its compounds and ability to change the flavour of the wine by its third or fourth use, so although it can be a great asset to have for your end product it is definitely a costly endeavor, with each barrel costing between R4000-R8000, sometimes more.
If you’ve visited Highlands Road Estate before, you might have seen our various oak barrels in our cellar, mostly used for our Pinot Noir, Shiraz and Semillon varietals. We use both French and American oak in our cellar, and our winemaker Jacques Maree enjoys experimenting with oak has a few showstopper wines lined up for release… Stay tuned!