By Justin Taylor
Our native and foreign “kings of the forest” have been harvested for warmth by the fire, the building of empires, and one trade that seemingly couldn’t do without a barrel constructed from this material. What am I referring to? The White, Sessilis, and Pedunculate Oak trees of the world that have provided building material for many of the barrels used in wine production since Roman times.
The oak barrel was a sturdy replacement to clay amphorae, or large pots, used in the Greek wine trade. The flavor that was imparted into a wine during storage and transportation was a very pleasing aspect of this container. One of the first lessons learned by traders was that the vessel could breath, giving oxygen to the wine and changing the final flavor. Fast forward through centuries of wine production and storage to arrive in today’s market where we as consumers often define the caliber of the wine by the regional type of oak used to cellar it. I assure you that Roman soldiers only cared about daily ration, and had no concern for barrel provenance.
Wine was meant to be rounded out by the benefits of oak fermentation and aging and never meant to be dominated by its storage vessel. That being said, why would the type of oak used be so important? Years of work in the cellar have taught winemakers the White Oak from the United States gives a much bolder and expressive flavor to the wines whereas English and Pedunculate oak from Europe has a mild yet complex flavor influence. The barrel should be used as a tool over many years to balance the flavor of oak it imparts on a wine. Once a barrel has been filled 3-4 times, the oak aroma and flavor tends to blend into the wine seamlessly, allowing the fruit to shine through.
Ultimately, the best type of oak to use is the one that allows a wine to show best in the glass. If that means American oak to round out the overly tannic and rich flavors of Petit Verdot, or French oak to give some backbone to the floral and delicate Cabernet Franc, the decision is one of quality to the final wine.
The answer to the most recent Wine and Vine trivia is Calvados. Calvados is a brandy created from distilling apple cider and aged for a minimum of 2 years in barrel to create a complex, rich, yet fruit forward brandy. Trivia for next issue: How long can a barrel be used?
Justin Taylor is Assistant Wine Maker at Burntshirt Vineyards, Hendersonville, NC.