The use of oak barrel to store wine is at least as old as Jesus. Back when the Romans invaded the Gauls, they discovered that some locals were using oak barrels to store beer. Oak being quite flexible and quick to build, needing little toasting, air proof and plenty of raw material around, rapidly made it a superior option to the traditional heavy amphora. In addition it adds an interesting taste to the wine.

While barrel ageing is the exception for white wines, it is often used for quality red. For a good 99.99 percent the wood used is oak, and that from France has the reputation of being the most refined. The second most used for wine is American oak which tends to give more intense flavours. 

Starting from the selection of the tree – in France it must be at least 150 years old – the cut and then the airing which can last several years, each step affects the final quality of the planks. Then the barrel-making itself will be largely dictated by the vintner’s wishes. 

One of the most significant parts of the barrel-making is the toasting – the use of flame to burn the inside of the barrel. In short, less toasting results in more natural wood aromas, more toasting and it will give scents of grilled nuts and spices. The quality and experience of the “toaster” must also be taken into consideration. Ronan Laborde, owner of Château Clinet in Pomerol, confided during a tasting in Macao that for their barrels they always request the same craftsmen as they all have a different touch, so as to keep the identity of the domaine. Top and large estates like Château Lafite-Rothchild will have their own.

Barrel ageing affects the wine in two ways.

The first is the oak adds flavours and complexity to the wine, heightening its quality. Around 20 years ago the fashion was for strong wood flavours, often at the expense of the wine identity. Nowadays the tendency is towards authenticity, so much actually that it is more and more common to see “Unoaked” specified on the label. 

Secondly, depending on how thick the slats are, how dense the grain of the wood, the level of toasting, the humidity of the cellar etc., the barrel will allow a micro-oxygenation. This will create a micro-oxidation which helps the exchange between the molecules of the wine, smoothing the tannins and developing complexity. 

The most-used type of barrels are the Bordeaux style (225 litres) and Bourgogne (228 litres) but they vary tremendously and can go up to a few thousand litres. Of course the bigger the container the less substantive the influence on the wine.

The last aspect is the age of the barrel. Wine labels are commonly marked “Young oak”, “New barrel” or “Old barrel”. The newer the wood the more it affects the wine. Note that the wood influence will last for two to three batches.  

A much cheaper practice and not uncommon in the New World (forbidden in Europe since 2006) is the use of oak chips to artificially add some wood aromas.

Here are two wines from Bordeaux where love with oak has been at first sight and never forgotten. Both belong to the Delon family who are also the proud owners of the 1855 Cru Classé Léoville Las Cases. 

Wines available at www.omtisfinewines.com

Thanks to Taransaud cooperage (www.taransaud.com) for providing some of the informations.

Château Potensac Médoc Cru Bourgeois Exceptionnel 2003

With a higher proportion of Merlot and 30 percent aged in new oak for over a year, this affordable and typical Bordeaux is beautiful to drink now. Aromas of liquorice and black fruits, very balanced on the palate with soft tannins, chocolate beans, tobacco box and vanilla. Long finish on cedar and iodine.

Château Nénin Pomerol 2007

Typical of the Pomerol region with mostly Merlot and a quarter Cabernet Franc, this is a wine with power and elegance. Using also just 30 percent new oak and a good eighteen months ageing, the nose shows very little smokiness to leave more space for the ripe red fruits and violet. On the palate the wine is powerful yet velvety with smooth tannins and notes of dried fruits, summer herbs, leather and a long finish on a spicy note due partly to a medium toasting. Very good to drink now or can store easily for another 10 years. David Rouault

David Rouault is a professional classical musician, part time wine consultant and full time wine lover,
holding WSET Level 3, Certified Specialist of Wine and Introductory Sommelier diplomas. www.dionysos.com.mo

Categories World of Bacchus