Everything you need to know about oaked wine

Wine barrels
Wine barrels
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Colin Burbidge, of Lancashire Wine School, writes about the oaked effect

The term oaked is often used relating to a wine but what exactly does that mean?

Oak vessels have been used for a long time for storage of wine, but its only recently that winemakers have really begun to understand the value of oak barrels to add flavour, body and softer tannins to wines.

Whilst a wide range of different woods and types of oak are used as wine storage vessels across the world three types in particular are recognised for the effect they have on wines.

In France Quercus Robur and Quercus Patraea are favoured while in America the white oak Quercus Alba is predominantly used, often described simply as American or French oak.

Before oak can be used to make the barrel it is seasoned, which can be achieved by warming the wood in a kiln or, the preferred method, to open-air season the wood allowing the sun, wind and rain to draw undesirable chemicals and bitter tannins from the wood. This process takes two to three years.

The oak is cut into small lengths called ‘staves’.

The size of the barrel will depend on the winemaker’s requirements.

Very large barrels are used primarily to expose the wine to oxygen, softening the wine’s natural tannins and giving additional character to wine with dried fruit flavours such as sherry.

A common use of oak is to add flavours from the new wood and for this purpose smaller barrels are used.

Typically in Bordeaux and Rioja, 225 litre Barricas or barriques are used. Here the wood adds sweet spice flavours such as vanilla to the wine while making the tannins less ‘gritty’ and softer on the palate.

Aging length can be anything from a few months to several years depending on the quality of the wine and its tannin or phenol levels which act as a preservative, maintaining those all important fruity flavours and aromas.

Aging in small oak barrels is used throughout the world with winemakers as far flung as Australia and New Zealand employing both French and American oak.

American oak imparts more intense flavours into wines and is also less expensive. The intense flavours may be too much for more delicate wines so its use is preferred for medium to full reds and full bodied whites such as new world chardonnays.

French oak barrels can cost around €1,000, adding a significant cost per bottle.

Less expensive alternatives are available to ‘oak’ the wine and are used particularly in volume wine production.

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 flavours. Even less expensive are the use of ‘oak chips’. Small chips of oak are typically placed in a muslin bag and dipped into the wine.

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 labelling terms ‘aged in oak’ and ‘oak aged’.