If wine is the answer, then what was the question? There might be several like: The variety off grape, largely the flavor, color, sugar, acidity and the levels of tannin in the wine, the age, the brand and others. But did you know that one of the largest contributing factors is the type of storage, particularly for the finesse, longevity and richness in taste.
‘Oaked Wine’ is a term we might have encountered amongst Wine Connoisseurs. Oak used in wine making renders a distinctive color, flavor, and texture to the wine. The process of oaking can either involve storage of wine in oak barrels for aging or fermentation or as free-floating chips called staves added to wine during fermentation.
Precursor to Storage:
The storage of wine in oak barrels surely gives an edge to its characteristics. However, it’s not just as plain and simply achieved by mere storage. The oak that is used to construct the barrel is first seasoned by either warming the wood in a kiln or more preferably to season the wood in an open atmosphere allowing the sun, wind and rain to extract the undesirable chemicals and bitter tannins from the wood. This process is an elaborate one that spans up to 3 years.
Barrels- Size and Uses:
Most typically we would associate barrels to be of a gigantic capacity, storing gallons of wine. In practice however the size of the barrel varies according to the winemaker’s needs. It is governed by the quality he/she desires to render to the wine. Large size barrels are used to expose the wine to oxygen which gives softness to its naturally occurring tannins and heightens its fruity aromas particularly with wine having dried fruit flavours like sherry.
Typically, oak is used to augment the flavor of wine and if this be the desired outcome smaller barrels are preferable. The small area compounds the effect and contributes to increasing the flavor.
Small oak barrels are used world over, as far flung as Australia and New Zealand that utilize the French and American oak for storage.
Wine making is all about experimentation and which yields the best possible results. In the context of Oak used in the process of wine making, there is great diversity in the grade of oak used. Two significant varieties that are recognized to yield favorable outcomes across the world are:
• France uses Quercus Robur and Quercus Patraea
French oak barrels are tighter grained and less dense than American Oak. French oak contributes a great deal of elegance and creamy quality to wine which justifies why they are more expensive. It also adds roasted subtitles and hints of spice to the finished wine. Grape varieties like chardonnay transform into some of the finest wines when aged in French Oak barrels.
• American Oak: the white oak Quercus Alba is predominantly used, often described simply as American or French oak.
American oak is much denser than the French variety and also very reasonable in its cost. It imparts more intense flavours into wines which may be too overwhelming for delicate wines. American oak is largely associated with the actual oaky aromas and flavors along with sweeter vanilla characteristics, which makes it a good choice for bolder grape varietals like Zinfandel.
Expenditure and Methods
Though the French Oak barrels impart a high level of exquisiteness and class they are a very pricey affair. The price of each barrel can cost a staggering amount that run up to €1,000, adding a significant cost per bottle.
In voluminous wine production where you don’t necessarily need to compromise on quality, other alternatives are used. A significant optimization of cost maybe obtained by adding oak chips into the wine rather than going through the extensive exercise of building an oak barrel.
Rather than pay an expensive cooper to build, fire, then finish a barrel, a significant saving can be made by putting the oak into the wine. Here, staves are placed inside stainless steel containers to expose the wine to oak flavor. Small chips of oak are typically placed in a muslin bag and dipped into the wine. Using ‘oak chips’ directly further cuts down the expenditure
This is a modern-day trick adopted by wine makers to utilize maximum production with minimal costs. However, the care and attention required to store and gently age wine in oak barrels is still considered the best way to age wine.
Here lies the difference between labeling terms ‘aged in oak’ and ‘oak aged’.