Three Things You Need to Know About Oak and Wine
The Influence of the Barrels
Have you ever asked a winemaker about their oak protocols? I love asking this question when I’m out tasting because winemakers tend to get a little geeky about oak; and I mean that in the best way possible! Oak provides not only flavor components, but also provides textural elements that result in the finished product having a silky or smooth mouthfeel.
While it would be possible to write a whole book about the topic (and I’m sure someone has), I’m going to give you a quick rundown on the top three things you need to know.
1. Location, Location, Location
The first thing you should know is that there are different flavor profiles extracted from the oak barrels depending on where the trees are grown. For instance, American oak imparts flavors of vanilla and coconut, while French oak is noted for producing wines with spice and toasted almond notes, and Hungarian oak provides caramel, vanilla, spice, and toasted flavors. Also, winemakers can have the barrels “toasted” from light to heavy, which will also affect the flavor profiles of the barrels. Here is a great video from Seguin Moreau showing the toasting process.
2. It’s In the Air
The second thing you should know is that the textural components that come from oak aging have to do with oxygen transmission rates or OTR. Because the oak is slightly porous, the wine is exposed to small amounts of oxygen, which softens the tannins present in the wine. There is also a small amount of evaporation that occurs, which is known as the “angel’s share.” This allows the flavors to be slightly more concentrated than wines aged without exposure to oxygen.
3. Age Matters
Finally, if the winemaker tells you that the wines were aged in 60% new oak and 40% neutral oak, you might be wondering what that means. New oak means the barrels are new and they will impart greater levels of flavor compounds. The neutral barrels are ones that have been used for several previous vintages and the oak flavor profiles will be much less noticeable.
Now head out there to your favorite tasting room and use this knowledge to ask the winemakers you meet about their oak protocols. You’ll thank me later.
This article originally appeared on the blog of the Lake County Winery Association.
Photo at top of story courtesy of Brassfield Estate Winery.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Maria Brunn is the Executive Director of the Lake County Winery Association. She formerly worked with the Sonoma County Vintners, where she managed operations and finances for the nonprofit trade association with 250 winery members. As Business Operations Manager, Brunn not only managed all legal and financial reporting, HR, and IT needs, but also was an integral part of the Sonoma County Barrel Auction team and traveled nationally and internationally to promote Sonoma County wines. Prior to her role at Sonoma County Vintners, Brunn worked in marketing and operations at the wine industry trade publication, Wines & Vines. A native of Northern California’s wine country, Brunn earned a B.A. in History from Sonoma State University. She also completed the U.C. Davis Wine Executive Program in 2015 and is sitting for the WSET 3 exam this coming year.
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