Until about the 15th century, before the advent of glass bottles, wine was aged, stored and sold in wooden barrels. Times have evolved with many different vessels now available, but despite all the technological winemaking advances oak still plays an important role in imparting flavour, texture, tannin profile and even colour to any given wine. Its contribution is due in most part to three main characteristics:
While innovation and new technologies – and new materials, such as stainless steel – have rendered oak barrels less ubiquitous, the contribution of oak to the character of a wine means it still plays a major part, however it is used. Even if wine is aged in stainless-steel vessels, oak might be introduced by the addition of oak chips or ‘staves’ (sticks).
There are two predominant species of oak used for making barrels – French (or European) white oak, Quercus petrea, and American white oak, Quercus alba. Their differences are subtle but distinct. American oak tends to be slightly more overt in its characteristics, which makes it more suitable for bolder, more structured wines such as cabernet sauvignon or shiraz. This is, in part, due to the wood being less densely grained than French oak, thus imparting more oxygen to the wine (allowing tannin molecules to merge and create a rounder, richer palate), as well as its more pronounced flavour. American barrels tend to be more potent in their flavour, often described as having notes of vanilla, cream soda and coconut with a creamier texture.
At Holm Oak, we choose to use the denser French oak for its delicate spice characters and fine tannin structure – which makes it ideal for our elegant, refined styles. We use it for all our pinot noir’s (except The Protégé), as well as our chardonnay, shiraz and cabernet, and, depending on the vintage, we might add some oak staves to our cabernet merlot to assist with tannin structure and palate weight. We use our barrels for about five years; the newer the barrel, the more oak flavour it will impart. Additionally, much like the blending of grapes from different blocks and/or vintages, we also ‘blend’ our barrels. For example, The Wizard Pinot Noir 2017 has been aged in 20 barrels comprising 60% new oak and 40% one-year-old oak.
In France, there is a broad range of coopers, each with a singular technique of making and ‘toasting’ (seasoning by fire) their barrels. In turn, the coopers have at their disposal many different oak forests across France from which to select their raw material. This level of variation is something any winemaker will take into consideration when choosing where to buy their barrels. Barrels are produced in different sizes, too. At Holm Oak, we use barriques, which hold 225 litres, but other commonly used vessels are 300-litre hogsheads and 500-litre puncheons.
The major French-oak forest regions stretch south-west from Vosges in the north-east, to Bertranges, Nevers, Allier (and its sub-region, Tronçais) and Limousin. Each has its own unique soil type, weather conditions and forest-management techniques, and subsequently, produces slightly different styles of oak wood – much in the way one might identify the terroir of a wine.
To this end, we source our barrels from the following regions:
So next time you stop to savour the bottle of wine you’ve opened, or when you book a Barrel Room tasting at Holm Oak’s cellar door, make sure to keep in mind that our grapes are just the beginning… there’s lots of thought and consideration that go into the final flavour profile of our wines. Your job is to just sit back and enjoy the fruits of our labour.
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