Ah, La Belle France…..fine food, fashion, architecture and, of course, wine. Talk to any winemaker, however, and their favorite French export is likely to be French oak. Once just made into water-tight containers for storage and transport, French oak (along with a few other woods and nationalities, more on that later) has grown to become an integral part of the flavor and texture of many wines.
Not originally part of an ancient winemaking culture which relied on clay, stone or leather containers, wooden barrels have, over the centuries, made oak and wine a natural partnership. Oak’s capacity for bending and shaping, as well as its ubiquity in the forests of Northern Europe, ensured that as the wine trade grew in the Middle Ages, so did the use of oak barrels and casks in wine making. In modern times, as winemakers have built upon and adapted those ancient traditions, wood has become, for many winemakers and wine drinkers, almost a taken-for-granted wine ingredient. When wine comes in contact with oak it extracts flavor and aroma compounds as well as tannins from the wood, all of which can contribute to a wine’s complexity and longevity. The barrel’s structure as well as the porosity of the wood create a unique aging environment that allows the transfer of tiny amounts of oxygen to the wine over time.
There’s a reason we rely mostly on oak in wine making and not pine, orange or cottonwood trees. Oak is one of the few woods that can be cut, bent and crafted into a leak-proof container. It also imparts largely pleasant flavor and aroma compounds; it’s easy to like the vanilla, butterscotch and spice notes that well-toasted (more on that later too!) oak can bring to a wine. Are some wines over-oaked and some winemakers too heavy-handed in their employment of what some have called “Medieval Tupperware”? Absolutely. In my winemaking approach I never rely on a recipe. Wines heavier in natural tannin and color can “handle” a little more oak whereas a Pinot Noir generally calls for less. For me, wines like a Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Noir Rose never see any oak at all. I let the intended wine style, and the wine itself, be my guide.
This June I was lucky enough to be invited to France by one of my barrel suppliers, Radoux, to witness first hand how one of our most beloved wine making tools gets from the forests of France into our cellars. From acorn to tree, from tree to barrel and from barrel to finished wine, I and three other winemakers traversed France and Spain on our quest to get to the heart of what wood brings to wine. We asked a million questions, drove what seemed about a million miles but also, as you might imagine, had a lot of fun. The next few posts will detail my journey through the Loire, Bordeaux, Rioja and the Ribera del Duero as I learned about the art of growing and working with French oak.
Alison Crowe lives in Napa and is the Winemaker for Garnet Vineyards and Picket Fence Vineyards in addition to sundry other bespoke wine projects. Girlandthegrape.com won “Best New Wine Blog” in the 2014 Wine Blog Awards. Alison is also the author of The Winemaker’s Answer Book , loves a good French flea market and has a particular fondness for Champagne.