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By Madeline Blasberg 

For nearly two millennia oak has been the original wine pairing, but why? 

It originally served as a way to transfer wine from point A to B, but today it’s a staple in nearly every winery and a quality marker in the minds of consumers.  Most wine drinkers know that oak imparts complexity, softens tannins and inflates prices.  But what else is there to this dynamic duo? 

Let´s take a look at a few things you never knew about oak in winemaking.

1.Why oak and not a different wood?

Most wine barrels are made from staves, or slabs, of oak wood.  Though some rouge winemakers are experimenting with other trees in the forest, most hold fast to tradition.  Why?  Because oak has several distinct advantages over woods such as pine, maple, and chestnut.  Oak is easier to shape into arches and seals well when in contact with liquid – which is why it was historically used in shipbuilding.  It also adds the most complementary flavors to wine, such as vanilla and coconut notes.  Other woods impart more of a resin flavor to the wine. 

2.Why is oak toasted?

During the creation of oak barrels, coopers (barrel makers) may toast the barrels over an open fire.  The heat from the fire caramelizes wood sugars on the inside surface of the staves, allowing the barrel to impart flavors of sweet vanilla and toast.  Barrels come in low, medium, and high toast.  The higher the toast, the stronger the flavors of spice and smoke that result in the final wine.

3.What’s the difference between French and American oak?

As with wine, region of origin affects oak’s characteristics.  Oak for winemaking primarily comes from 5 forests in France and 18 states in the USA, though Hungarian and Slovenian trees are also used.   

French oak has a tight grain, and imparts more tannins and fewer aromatics.  It is considered to have more finesse and is sold at steeper prices.  Across the seas, American oak tends to have a looser grain, and imparts more prominent flavors of vanilla, coconut, and dill.  They also generally cost 50% less.

4.What are oak alternatives?

As innovative winemakers look to economize without sacrificing quality, many are abandoning the barrel and turning to oak alternatives. 

Oak comes from different regions, can be toasted to different degrees, and can be shaped into barrels of different sizes – ranging from low to high toast.  However, oak chips, staves, cubes, and shavings can accomplish a similar result with a much more palatable price tag. 

During or after the fermentation process these oak pieces are steeped in the wine, much like a tea bag soaks in water.  Because the wine is in contact with more surface area of the wood, more flavors are imparted.

Oak powder is also occasionally used, but is generally reserved for home winemaking kits.

5.Do I really have to pay for it?

There are many different factors that influence the final price of a bottle of wine: the cost of the grapes, machinery, labor etc. – and the cost of oak.  Obviously oaked wines carry a higher price, but why exactly?

The cost of acquiring the barrels themselves is the biggest culprit – today the average new French barrel costs between $850 and $4,000, and that value depreciates with every usage.  Think of it this way: the barrel occupies space (real estate) within the winery, and the wine occupies real estate within the barrel.  The newer the barrel, the higher the rent.  And the longer the stay, the higher the bill. 

Cheers! Drink Northwest Cellars.


MadelineBlasbergAuthor Bio: Madeline Blasberg is a Certified Wine Consultant and has spent time living in Mendoza, Argentina where she was surrounded by wine, both personally and professionally.  She currently acts as the Official Wine Commentator and Reviewer for Etching Expressions.

Posted on in Educational

By Winfield Wines

The best way to explore Spain is to visit different regions of specific tourist value. What better way than to take a wine tour and learn about how different cultures existed for generations in a country proud of its inheritance. It may have started years ago with a tour organized by family-run businesses taking you around their orchards but the situation has changed drastically.

People travel great distances and were ready to walk miles to see how a traditional winemaking business functioned. Many still use ancient tools and barrels to recreate the scene of a typical brewery functioning like clockwork for generations.

Times have changed, and you are now privileged to have organized tours take you around Spain specifically to watch and enjoy the process of winemaking at some of the best breweries you'll find in Europe. Tour operators specifically design wine tours and add a few extra motivating factors of their own to come up with the perfect itinerary suitable for short as well as long excursions.

Kindle Special Interests

Tours are also organized to satisfy special interests of people arriving with specific preferences and nostalgic memories from back home. Time availability is always an important factor and is incorporated into all organized tours. For example, Spain has a rich heritage left behind by many different cultures sparked through the adventurous spirit of invaders who realized the potential of living lifestyles similar to those experienced at home.

Over the years, they used natural resources gathered from different regions of Spain and used processes they brought with them to grow some of the best wines you'll find across Europe and in the world. Visitors are exposed to Andalusian and La Mancha cultures associated with specific regions that take them to Don Quixote's windmills and typical winegrowing areas of Rioja and Ribera del Duero.

Nowadays, wine connoisseurs have a lot of choice when it comes to drink and travel. Wine tasting events can be attended not only in the Mediterranean, but also across northern Europe and beyond. These have grew to be a great tourist attraction that offer quality wine tasting events and great enjoyment for tourists and locals. The reason why these kinds of places attract so many people is that it is a very cultural place, known for making wine.

Spanish food is a major draw for most tourists arriving from different parts of the world. Whether you're looking to have tapas (appetizers) or paella (rice dish), you can literally travel around Spain and find different varieties of wine to go along with different kinds of food specialties specific to the region. Take a river cruise and visit century-old wineries or have the famous Menorcan lobster stew at different beach resorts.

Enjoy A Carnival On The Way

Plan your wine tour a bit in advance and enjoy the famous festivals taking place at different times of the year. Whether it's the carnival season in February or other festivals based on village traditions, you'll always be close to a vineyard producing local wines of exceptional quality. Understand the way people live and approach life. Family-run businesses offer traditional recipes preserved within their family to guests.

A wine tour can literally be a sightseeing tour of Spain to understand how Spanish natives lead their daily lives. Walk through scenic fields or spend a day with locals at a vineyard. Many popular brands have special outlets close to their brewery offering unique labels and other local products. You can come again and again to visit other vineyards and still feel you’re there for the very first time.

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