Lookin' Good at 58

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Oak and Wine

Oak is used most often for storing wine because it is easy to work with and is watertight unlike other woods. There are other woods that are utulized elsewhere such as chestnut found in some places like the Rhone Valley , but it is so porous and tannic that it has to be lined with a neutral substance which defeats the purpose really of the wine being stored in a wood to begin with. Rauli , a beech variety found in Chile , was used until the vitners discovered that it gave the wine a musty character which did not win over a lot of fans elsewhere. You have the pine used by some Greeks giving some of the wines a resinous character. Ever tried Retsina?

But the most popular by far is oak because the flavour goes well with wine and when aged in it the physical properties of the oak naturally clarifies and stablizes the wine as well. The properties of the oak will help soften the texture of a red wine while deepening the colour of it too.

A white wine such as Chardonnay ages well with oak because it develops into a smoother wine and deeper in flavour. Some vitners like to add a creamier texture to the white wine so what they will do is stir in the lees left from the fermentation in the barrel. Lees is sediment that builds up in the bottom of a vat during the fermentation of a wine. Ever heard of Muscadet sur Lies?

White wines can be aged for up to 3 months in oak just depending on how much the vitner wants of it's influence on the wine. Whereas , serious red wines can be aged up to 18 months or longer in larger oak casks. During this longer stretch the wine in barrel has to be racked quite often which means wine is moved from one barrel to a cleaner barrel to rid it of it's lees from the fermentation. This racking also aerates the wine , softens it's tannins , and rids it of any bad odours that could affect the wine building up in the barrel.

Barrels need regularly topping up with wine due to evaporation to prevent exposure to air while aging. Micro-oxygenation is becoming increasingly popular replacing barrel aging in some parts when tiny measured doses of oxygen is added to wine in oak or stainless steel.

Now when you hear small oak barrels or large oak barrels remember if it is aged in small oak barrel then you will get more oaky flavour because of the larger oak to wine ratio.

The differences between American oak and European oak are quite noticeable. First of all , American oak is sawn and not split like European oak which affects the wood cells in a way that releases vanillin and several different milky lactones which gives you the coconut aroma you get in an oaky California chardonnay as an example.

American oak is kiln dried as well giving more concentration of the lactones where on the other hand European oak is seasoned outdoors in places such as France when during this time the tannins of the wood have softened and some of the more aromatics of the wood have dissipated.

All this makes the American oak more aggressive in nature as opposed to it's European counterpart.

As a note however , even though French winemakers love their oak from their own forest , many are experimenting with the American oak because the sawn variety found here in America is far less expensive than the split found over in Europe. About half the price in fact!

Maybe in the future you will see some coconut flavoured Bordeaux?

That is the wine post for this week. Anything you might want me to cover let me know.

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