The Ol’ Oak Debate
Howdy Howdy Howdy
Even though my eyeballs aren’t screwed tight enough right now, it sure smells like spring outside. How refreshing! I had cataract sugary yesterday, and my left eye, literally, doesn’t know what my right eye is doing. My keyboard is a dizzy blur.
So, here’s a story I wrote two years ago about oak for the Georgetown Advocate. Next week (I can’t wait!), we’ll learn about our two brand new, first ever dry rose’s; our Rose of Sangiovese and Ramato. Here we go:
While doing winery tours and tastings at Grape Creek, our guests often ask me about oak and how it influences wine. So, I thought it would be fun to share some of this info with you, our Georgetown readers.
Let’s begin with a little history. The use of straight-sided, open wooden barrels to store wine and other liquors dates back 5000 years to ancient Egypt. The Iron Age, not quite 3000 years ago, brought us fully closed barrels, which by the first century BC were widely used to store not only wine, but also beer, olive oil, and milk.
Wooden barrels were a huge improvement over older clay pots for several reasons. They were stronger and less fragile, they were round and could easily be rolled for relocation, and (like magic) it was discovered they actually improved the flavor of certain liquids, especially wine!
Over time, oak evolved as the wood of choice, and of the over 400 species of oak, two types of white oak (Quercus Alba from America and Quercus Robur from France) have emerged as favorites. To be used as wine barrels, the trees must have a circumference of about five feet, making the tree around 100 years old. Only wood from the base of the trunk to the first lateral branch is used, and one tree will yield only two to four barrels.
Storing wine in small 60 gallon oak barrels does two things. It ages the wine, and while doing so adds aromas which lead to greater complexity.
Wine matures in oak due to what’s called “controlled oxidation”. Even though the barrel is sealed, small amounts of air flow from the outside in, while small amounts of wine evaporate from the inside out.
Controlled oxidation does a lot of things, but most importantly it “marries” the component parts of the wine into something much bigger than the individual parts. I joke on my tours about Kathy and I being in oak together for 34 years, and how we continually grow together. 3% of wine is over 300 chemical compounds; they are like personality quirks learning to be friends!
Oak also gives aromas to wine that add to complexity on our palate. These aromas are like sweet spices that remind me of the holiday season, including vanilla, cinnamon, allspice and clove.
The insides of these barrels are charred, or toasted, over large flames when manufactured. This gives the wine a toasty or smoky quality, and wineries can purchase barrels with what’s called light, medium, or heavy toast. A barrel with light toast yields a fruity wine, while a heavy toast one that’s more oaky, tannic, and full-bodied.
What’s the difference between French and American oak? Well, they impact the wine differently due the growth rate of the trees. The French species grows much slower, and therefore the wood has a tighter grain that is more dense and less porous. This gives us a slower rate of controlled oxidation, with a softer oak finish on the back of our palate.
American oak, with it’s greater porosity, is more aggressive and gives up oak and tannin much more quickly to the wine. It can dominate our entire palate.
Which is best? Well, it’s a personal thing. I’ve seen wine geeks that are very knowledgeable argue that one is better than the other. It’s like watching people argue about Coke and Pepsi…