The process of winemaking is one which has evolved dramatically across the millennia, and one which continues to adapt, change, and develop to this day. However, no matter how much modern technology sharpens and hones the winemaking process, and no matter how much more precise and efficient the whole practice becomes, there’s one aspect of winemaking that simply cannot be replicated by machine: barrel aging, and the impact of time upon wine.
The oak barrel is more than just a winemaking tool. It’s a symbol of the entire industry and its ancient root. For wine lovers, there is really no sight more evocative or beautiful than that of oaken barrels, lined up in a dark and echoing cellar, patiently waiting to be bottled and released to the world. These barrels, crafted in much the same way by artisans as they always have been, and containing the secrets of a truly ancient practice, are a beautiful reminder of the long and rich history of winemaking. They’re a true testament to the important role that time, patience, and waiting plays in the production of our favorite wines.
The Importance of Oaking
Oaking - that is, the process of aging wine in oak barrels - is an often-overlooked aspect of winemaking, yet once its impact is understood, it’s impossible to ignore its presence in every sip. Indeed, oak barrels serve a hugely valuable purpose, and so many of the world’s most characterful, distinctive, and famous wines owe a massive part of their character to oak barrels.
This is, at least partly, why quality oak barrels are so valuable and precious to high-end winemakers. Top of the range barrels made from authentic French oak fetch incredible prices at auction, and even the barrels made from American Oak or Central and Eastern European wood still cost a pretty penny!
This goes some way towards explaining why so many oaken barrels take on a second life once they’ve been used for wine: they’re just too valuable to throw away or turn into firewood. Oak barrels, depending on their size and age, get repurposed into all sorts of things, from trendy tables in wine bars to quirky mobile homes!
The most common use for recycled oak barrels, however, is in the whiskey and rum industries. There’s been a huge uptick in whiskeys and rums being aged in wine barrels, as the oak maintains so much of that unique wine-rich flavor in the wood, which then gets passed on to the spirits in the form of a mellow fruitiness that’s bang on-trend right now!
We’re going to be taking a closer look at oak barrels and oak aging, and asking why winemakers choose to age their produce in oak. It’s a question that delves deep into winemaking history, and which reveals plenty about the wine industry as we know it today.
What Came Before the Oak Barrel?
Ancient winemaking cultures, such as the Greeks, Romans, Phoenicians, and Egyptians, didn’t use oak or wooden barrels of any kind for storing or aging their wines. This was due to a number of reasons: the art of cooperage, that is, barrel-making, hadn’t properly arisen at this time, and the type of wood that these cultures had easy access too simply wasn’t suitable for storing liquids. It was too rigid, for one thing, and too porous, as well.
There is, interestingly, some evidence of Nubian cultures using palm wood for wine storage, but crafting barrels from this material wouldn’t have been an easy or efficient process, and nor would the resulting barrels have been reliable for aging or storing wine. Furthermore, the whole process would have been redundant, simply because the Romans and their contemporary cultures had what they believed to be a far superior option: the amphora.
Amphorae were huge clay vases, used primarily for wine storage. They were easy to make, long-lasting, and disposable - the ideal solution for a quick-growing empire that needed wine transported across the continent to its furthest borders. Make no mistake: the Romans were obsessed with wine, and they planted vines everywhere from the UK to Germany, from France to Spain, and from North Africa to Central Asia. They had a good reason for their obsession, too: wine was a valuable commodity for their developing empire, and it was safer to drink than water.
For hundreds of years, clay amphorae were considered perfect for wine storage. Clay was plentiful, it was cheap, and it was good for both aging and trading wine. It could be molded into any form, and it could be made completely airtight, to stop the wine from spoiling and remaining fresh. However, the Romans would have discovered one major drawback: clay was fragile, and prone to cracking and splitting in intense sunlight or when being moved on the road. A better solution, after a time, had to be found.
The Discovery of Oak Barrels in France
The land of Gaul - which would become, of course, France - was one of the main conquests of the Roman Empire. It was also the location in which the solution to their clay amphorae problem would be discovered. Gaul was home to vast oak forests, offering an unlimited supply of extremely high-quality wood which was both strong yet supple, and perfect for shaping into barrels.
The Gauls had already mastered the art of cooperage, and as a beer-drinking culture, were using oak barrels to transport their produce up and down the country and across the sea to Celtic Britain, without splitting or cracking.
The best thing about oak? It had a close and tight grain which was watertight, but not completely airtight. The porous nature of oak allowed for slow and steady oxidation; the process which causes wine to age, and for the true potential of a fine wine to come forward in the glass. The Romans were beyond delighted with this discovery, and within two hundred years of conquering Gaul, almost all Roman wine was being stored and aged in oak.
The Impact of Oak Wood on Wine’s Flavor
Although the precise details are lost in the mists of time, it mustn’t have been too long before the Roman winemakers discovered a further benefit to oak aging. As the wine slowly, gradually, and elegantly aged in the ever-so-slightly porous oak wood, it would take on some of the subtle and delicious characteristics of the barrel. Those delicate layers of flavor may be taken for granted nowadays, but they must have been revelatory back then: the oak was lending a smoother, sweeter, delicately spiced characteristic to the wine which simply wouldn’t have been present before, and those flavors of butter, vanilla, and cream must have been received with rapturous pleasure and excitement.
Of course, they also would have discovered that the longer the wine spent in the barrel, the smoother and more intense the wooden oak flavors would become. The rest, as they say, was history… and oak has played a major role in the winemaking industry ever since, constantly lending those subtle yet unmissable flavonoids and chemicals to the wine, and transforming it slowly, gradually, and unmistakably with each passing year.
Oak barrels may help wine evolve as it ages, and bring out those beautiful flavors we know and love… but nothing provides the perfect finishing touch to a good wine like a stemless BrüMate wine glass. Get yours today!