Many white wines are aged in stainless steel, which preserves its fresh characteristics and fruity notes. But wines that are aged in oak barrels tend to be much more complex in flavor and texture. That may explain why the top 50 most expensive wines in the world are oak-aged!
After grapes are pressed and left to ferment (as yeast coverts sugar to alcohol), wine is stored to complete the maturation process. And as it settles, the flavors come together before it’s bottled. Wine Spectator’s wine advice columnist refers to oak barrels as “part of the metaphorical spice rack that vintners use to make a wine of their style.” Winemakers are in touch with the size, age, grain and other fine details associated with the barrels, as it can impact the finished product significantly.
The type of oak is an important consideration in choosing a barrel. Two that are used most frequently are French Oak and American Oak barrels. French Oak is considered to produce the best wine. It can cost almost double what American Oak costs, at about $600 per barrel. Many premium wines are aged in French Oak barrels. This is because they add a great deal of complexity and structure to the wine, and increase the palate presence.
French oak barrels are tight-grained, so they don’t affect a wine’s flavor as much as looser-grained American oak barrels. The wine is considered to be more delicate and refined. Very subtle notes of vanilla and spice may come through in wine that is aged in French Oak. American Oak passes on much more flavor, and the wine is considered more aggressive in texture and vanilla aroma.
As much as the barrel can affect the final product, so can its age. A new barrel has a much greater oak influence on the wine, so it has a greater impact on the flavor and texture than a barrel that has been used several times. After about five uses, the barrel does not impart much flavor to the wine.
Here at Greenvale, our Chardonnay is fermented and aged in French Oak barrels from a variety of cooperages (where barrels are hand-crafted with precision—it’s an art form all its own!). Greenvale reds are aged in French, American and Hungarian barrels, based on the qualities our winemaker, Richard, is looking to achieve.