The Art of the Oak Barrel


Every wine has a story that enables your palate to connect to nature. The year it was birthed, the weather climate, the strength of the soil to the oak aging process. However, what if we took a look at how the oak barrel truly influences how we see wine and how we appreciate the taste of the wine? Would we be able to recognize the art that goes behind the magical taste of an oaky wine?

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Wine is a beautiful thing in its complexity as its 50% art and 50% science. There are winemakers that enjoy producing wine from the traditional roots of winemaking, and now with technology continuously on the rise, there are winemakers that tend to go towards the modern way of winemaking which includes using more wine based machines, but don't want to take away some of the classical traditions when making wine.

So, what happens to a wine that is oaked influenced?

Typically when oak barrels are involved, you'll experience an added structure to the wine. When oak aging, each barrel requires the finest wood grown in specific environments. Specifically, there are two well-known oak barrels, "French Oak," and "American oak." The process of building these oak barrels are the most labor intensive container to produce.  

And to top it all off, oak barrels are only good for up to three to four years, before it looses its freshness transferring the oak compounds to the wine. The key to this process of transferring oaky characteristics, is founded by how much oxygen is transmitted. Which allows the flavors to be apparent in the wine. 

Listed below, are the different aroma compounds that come alive through this process:

  1. Eugenol (pronounce: Yoo-ja-naal) and Isoeugenol: possess a spicy, clove aroma 
  2. Guaiacol (pronounce: Gwai-uh-kaal) and 4-Methylguaiacol: smoky & char aromas; smoky character imparted by heavily toasted oak
  3. Cis-oak Lactone and Trans-oak Lactone: Powerfully aromatic. Fresh oak + Coconut 
  4. Furfural and 5-Methylfurfural: possess sweet, butterscotch, light caramel and faint almond-like aromas 
  5. Vanillin: natural vanilla. Depending on the toasted barrel level(medium toasted or heavily toasted) 

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American oak will have more intense flavors like, dark chocolate, dill, eucalyptus, mint, char, tobacco and wood, yet sometimes sweet with a hint of vanilla. French oak, has recognizable flavors such as, being delicate. Which can be aromas like, vanilla, caramel, cream, baking spices, with a little less sweet character, unlike with American oak.

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Because of the heat in the U.S., where American oak is produced, the barrels oxygen is absorbed quicker than French oak. So, an oaky wine that was used by American oak, think, much more intense aroma. And French oak, the complete opposite. French oak slowly absorbs the oxygen, which will be typically more delicate and subtle. 

French oaky wines, typically you'll experience more firmer, but silkier tannins, whereas American oak gives more obvious, rougher tannins that will need time in the bottle to mature overtime. 

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Don’t be afraid of oak! When used correctly, it makes good palatable wine awesome. Let us know in the comments below, if you've ever had a wine that was delicious using American and or French oak. Want to try an oaked wine? Click here or try a wine that is popular here at Palatini's Wine Shop, here, to ignite your oaky palate. Cheers!