The Heyday of Clay
The Oak barrel was not always the standard home for maturing wine. For years' ancient civilizations, namely the Greeks and later the Romans, utilized clay amphorae to hold their wine. This was mostly due to its moldable and air tight quality. Larger clay vessels were used for maturing the wine and smaller terracotta vessels were used in transportation. While now taking a back seat within the wine world, Amphorae have not completely disappeared. They are still used in many cultures today.
One such variation is the Qvevri used by the Georgians. Large egg shaped clay vessels are buried in the ground and remain relatively untouched. Burying the vessel underground keeps the temperature at a constant while the egg shape allows sediment to rest at the bottom, leaving the wine free to move about. This method keeps the wine in its natural state, a herald to the way wine was made before all our modern-day advances. The result is a wine production that is pure in its natural elements, such as an Orange Wine, a white wine exposed to the skins.
Related: What is Orange Wine?
There's No Place Like Oak
The discovery and formation of the barrel revolutionized the wine industry. Why oak instead of others woods? Its resources were abundant (especially around the alps), it was softer than others woods, making it easier to bend and shape and allowing for faster production, and the tighter grain of oak allowed for a more airtight seal. As the advent of this new vessel took off, wine makers began to realize in addition to the practical properties, the wood imparted a deeper quality or flavor to the wine. Flash forward to modern day, and wine makers can manipulate that simple oak barrel to greatly affect the flavor of the wine. How so?
A Toast to your Health, or rather, a Healthy Amount of Toast.
The determining factor of how much flavor a barrel imparts lies within how much it is toasted. Toasting the wood mellows the tannins, changes the flavor and releases several natural compounds from the barrel.
Who wants to go on a very short scientific journey into the grain of the barrel? Everyone have their seatbelts on? Good! Here we go: Different compounds in the wood release different flavors in our wine. Oak lactone releases an aroma of fresh oak and coconut. Vanillin presents itself as vanilla. Eugenol and Isoeugenolis produce our spicy, clove flavors. Guaiacol and 4-Methylguaiacol give us our smoky taste, and Furfural and 5-Methylfurfural is where we get our caramel or our almond-like characteristics.
All these compounds can vary depending on the specific oak species and the amount of toasting done to the barrel. For example, heavy toasting may actually inhibit vanillin from leaving the wood, but increase Eugenol. This is where our wine maker becomes a chemist of sorts, determining the strength of the toasting to produce the flavors he'd like to see imprinted on the wine. You survived our scientific journey! But wait there's more. Now that we understand the flavors we can get from our oak barrels, how do we determine which specie we want?
Related: How is Wine Made?
The Gain is in the Grain.
Does the species of oak really make a difference? After all, a tree is a tree no matter it's country of origin right? Nope, not quite. And here's why: It all comes down to the grain. A smaller grain means less evaporation and a more gradual release of wood flavors. Thus barrels with a smaller grain, typically French Oak, will have a subtler flavor palate. Following this line of thought then we can see the larger grain, typically American oak, will leave a larger footprint on our wine. American oak is also known to have more vanillin, leaving a sweeter aroma behind. So which do you choose, American or French? That answer would be left up to your palate. Do you want the subtle, mysterious Frenchman? Or the boisterous but sweet American? Can't decide? Don't worry, you can always settle for the safe and stable Hungarian, considered the halfway point between the American and French Barrels.
An Ode to Oak
When it comes down to it, your barrel is not something to take lightly. It can add some serious complexity to your wine. Our friends over at Allora Vineyards described it this way, "We believe that oaking of the barrels is like using the spices in your kitchen. The spices are designed to complement and enhance the meal rather than overpower it. We feel the same about the barrels." I really couldn't say it better myself. So instead I'll move on to stainless steel!
The New Kid on the Block
Wine has lived in its barrel for quite some time now. But hold on, there's something new and shiny on the scene. It's reflective and pretty! Is it wrong for our wine to be interested in stainless steel? No, and here's why. Because stainless steel is not a replacement to Oak, it is simply a partner (or maybe a summer home? Honestly I got lost in my own metaphors here folks). Yes, it has its benefits over oak (longer durability, easy to clean producing pure flavor quality, and more control over flavor introduction and temperature), but it also has its con's (mainly loss of flavor compounds discussed earlier from oak). The point is you don't have to choose one over the other.
The key is to experiment. Try some orange wines aged in clay, try an old-world wine from a French oak barrel. Go to Long Island and experience some stainless aged Sauvignon Blanc that will knock your socks off. In this Pearl's opinion, there's no right or wrong here, so try out some homes, learn as much as you can, and sip happy.
While stainless steel is an excellent option for aging whites, many would argue that reds need oak. Or for those who prefer a lightly oaked white wine, aging can begin in stainless then the wine transferred to oak barrels. Some vintners make this technique easier on themselves by adding oak chips to stainless tanks. Varietals that age particularly well in stainless steel include chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, and pinot grigio. Rosé is an absolute delight when aged and stored in this material! These wines are very fruit-forward with a bright, crisp finish. Expect notes like lemongrass, kiwi, strawberry, and even watermelon. Yes, these flavors can be coerced from grapes. It takes a talented winemaker to craft these wines as nothing is masked by oak. Hence there is not much room for mistakes when making wine in stainless steel.
Want to try stainless steel wine glasses? Check out our Stainless Steel Wine Glasses!
French Oak Barrels
French oak barrels are made from white oak trees that grow in their namesake country. The specific species are Quercus robur and Quercus sessiliflora. Due to a tighter grain and less density than American oak, French oak delivers an unparalleled silky texture. The flavor notes are spicier with hints of toastiness. These barrels lend a distinct creaminess to wines, making them an ideal choice for aging varietals like chardonnay. The biggest disadvantage of French oak barrels is their price as they are very expensive.
Need to properly aerate your wine? Take a look at our Wine Mermaid Wine Glass which self-aerates.
American White Oak Barrels
American white oak barrels usually come from the Quercus alba tree. While French oak is subtle, American oak is bold. The character is beautifully matched to fruity New World varietals, especially reds. These barrels give wines noticeable tasting notes like coconut, tobacco, and baking spices. The intense flavors and creamy texture complement the boldest of wines like zinfandel. American oak barrels are also roughly the cost of French oak barrels.
Hungarian Oak Barrels
For those looking for the best of both worlds, explore Hungarian oak barrels. Sometimes called Eastern European oak, the trees used have very similar characteristics to the French and American species used for making barrels. Wood from the Mecsek forest provides lighter and sweeter flavors to wines. The oak from the Zemplen forest is comparable to French barrels based on its tight grain and silky tannins. The resulting wines can possess characteristics of French and American oak, even adding warm toffee and butterscotch notes.
American White Oak Whiskey Barrels
A newer trend is aging wine in whiskey barrels. American white oak is famous worldwide for producing stellar spirits, especially bourbons and whiskeys. These barrels even give the finest single malt Scotch its trademark vanilla flavors! The most popular spirit barrels to age wine in are bourbon barrels as they are rich with notes of brown sugar, vanilla, and baking spices. Big, bold reds like cabernet sauvignon and petite sirah (the only thing petite is the name) are exceptional when aged in these repurposed barrels. Yet they are not strictly for reds as chardonnay takes on a new life when it is poured from a bourbon barrel. If you prefer this timeless wine oaked, get ready for a vanilla and butterscotch bombshell that does not disappoint.