If you have drunk a fine wine of late, the chances are that is has been aged in an oak barrel.

Not many are aware of this fact and believe that only certain types of wine are oak aged, but the fact of the matter is that this process is employed by pretty much every vineyard in the world worth its salt, for a number of key reasons.

Why Are Oak Wine Barrels Used?

When you evaluate the impact oak wine barrels have on aged wine, it isn’t difficult to see why it is such a popular process and been now for many thousands of years.

Oak aging greatly influences how a wine tastes, looks and its final texture. Even if the wine in question doesn’t have an oaky flavour; there is a strong chance that is has at least some contact with an oak wine barrel.

How Did It All Start?

To explain how oak barrels became so popular for storing wine and also continental beer, one has to look back several millennia to the early days of the Roman Empire.

The Romans had been using clay amphora to store their wine as their empire swept through Europe, this did however have limitations as it was very heavy and cumbersome to transport. It did keep wine fresh though as it was pretty much airtight and had therefore been the favoured choice.

That was until they reached France, where the Gauls had been using oak to store their beer for centuries due to the fact that it was readily available, malleable and the wood only needed minimal toasting in order to be ready to store ample amounts of wine.

It wasn’t long before the Romans adopted this method of storing all the wine they needed for their thirsty army. Wine was actually safer to drink that water at this time as it provided sometimes malnourished soldiers with valuable calories and of course, that intoxicating buzz that only alcohol supplies.

Little did the Romans or the Gauls know, that the oak aged barrels would provide so much more to the wine than simple storage, but more on that later.

How and Where Does This Take Place?

There are three main types of oak wine barrel that are used across the world to achieve this effect. As you will find out by reading on, these all have their own nuances and you may well be able to determine how some of your favourite aged wines have been treated or perhaps, where.

What is clear to see, is that oak wine barrels had quickly become untouchable as the preferred storage material for wine and it has continued like that to this very day.

French Oak

As mentioned, the first instances of aging wine in Oak was recorded in France during the Roman occupation and as such, many of the world’s wine barrels come from this region. French oak trees are extremely common, meaning there is plenty of material available to make the barrels even today.

Quercus Robut and the slightly rarer Quercus Petraea are the main variants of French Oak and can be found in forests around the country, in particular the regions of Alliers, Vosges and Troncais. These days, high quality French Oak barrels cost around £3-£4k!

This is not to be confused with Limousin Oak which is more popular for other classic French beverages such as Armagnac, Sherry and Cognac.

American Oak

American oak is well used for whiskey, with bourbon being in high demand and even Scotch such as Macallan depending highly on these barrels.

There is no reason why this kind of oak can’t be used for wine aging, but it is far more popular for whiskey’s. This is due to the fact it imparts a far fiercer flavour, not always ideal for delicately produced fine wines. The American White Oak has looser grains than its counterparts, which can create a quite different flavour over time.

Hungarian & Eastern European Oak

This variant is very similar to French Oak and for this reason, has been very popular in recent years due to its lower cost.

Many Malbecs and Petite Verdot are aged using Hungarian and Eastern European Oak, emphasising the excellent results it can produce. Generally speaking, this type of oak is seen as a compromise between American and French, the latter being superior in quality.

In addition to all the storage and durability value of oak, these barrels also contribute to some great flavours that we will have all enjoyed in our wines over the years. Some of these include:

  • Vanilla
  • Almondy Sugar
  • Smokiness
  • Wood
  • Dill
  • Clove
  • Coconut
  • Spice

As you can see, oak aged barrels are a crucial part of wine production and without it, your favourite tipples may well taste very differently indeed.

If you enjoyed this article and want to learn more about fine wine, why not peruse the rest of the articles on the Octavian blog?