Why Wine Ages in Oak Barrels

Some time ago, we got invited to a lunch and wine tasting featuring wines from Rioja, Spain. The lunch not only featured some amazing wines, the winemaker attended. He led us through a flight of the same red wine aged in different types of oak barrels.

Now, normally, Anne scoffs at tastings like this. Tasting wine based on what oak it was aged in is the sort of thing that wine snobs turn into exercises in precious without breathing hard. And they suck all the joy out of it in the process, too.

The other reason Anne scoffs is that the potential for groupthink in these situations is so high that whatever results you get are darned near pointless. What is groupthink? It’s what happens when people are in a group and someone says A, someone else agrees and the next thing you know, everyone goes along with it, us being the social critters that we are.

It’s how Riedel sells their variety-specific glasses. We don’t doubt their reps honestly believe that a type of wine actually tastes better in a specific glass. But we’ll bet they won’t let you do a tasting blind and/or by yourself, which we did. The wine works better in a specific glass because they keep telling you it will, and someone agrees and next thing you know, the whole room says the same.

But what made this Rioja tasting different is that the winemaker didn’t try to sell us on any one wine. He was merely trying to explain why he used different types of oak barrels to age his wine in.

Stainless steel versus oak

Once upon a time, all wine aged in oak barrels. Or wood barrels, but since oakwood, specifically, was good for making barrels, that’s what folks used. And with steel being insanely expensive and difficult to manipulate, it was put to better use as swords and other stuff. Even after the Industrial Revolution made big-ass metal containers easier to make and cheaper to sell, oak kind of hung on in the winery. Old habits die hard and using big-ass metal containers didn’t have any clear benefit. At least, not right away. That the wine picked up flavors from the wood, well, that was part of the flavor of wine.

Eventually, however, winemakers realized they could make white wines, in particular, taste really good without all that woody flavor. So, stainless steel tanks started showing up in wineries. But the stainless steel didn’t do so much for the reds, and they continue to age red wine in oak barrels.

What oak barrels do

Oak barrels add a certain creaminess (lactic acid) to wine. In addition, because they are not completely air tight, a tiny bit of the wine evaporates. The wine left inside gets left with more intense flavor.

The interesting thing about oak is that because it’s a plant, it’s affected by the same things that grape vines are. So oak from different places in the world adds slightly different flavors to the wine that’s aged in it.

It’s not a huge difference. It’s pretty subtle, in fact. You’re not going to taste a wine blind and know that it was aged in Hungarian rather than French oak. That’s the precious nonsense that makes Anne so crazy. But if you taste a wine that was aged in American barrels side by side with the same wine aged in French and/or Hungarian barrels, you can taste a slight difference. That’s kind of fun.

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