Winemaking is a subtle science and it's no wonder—one of the world's favorite and oldest beverages, wine has had millennia to work out its kinks and optimize its flavors. While the science of winemaking has kept up with the times, there are some traditions that can't be improved on. One of those traditions is the oak wine barrel.
Thought to be first introduced by the Romans, the oak barrel most likely originated out of convenience—oak was cheap and readily available. But over time it became clear that wood casks—and oak casks, in particular—did more than just provide storage. Two things in particular proved important.
First, wood barrels allow a degree of aeration and evaporation to occur that ideally concentrates the flavors of the wine. Second, the oak itself imparts delicious flavors that bring out the best in many different wine varietals. Wines fermented in oak barrels are often described as having flavors notes of smoke, spice, caramel and cream. Oak is especially complementary to Chardonnay, imparting it with coconut and clove notes. On the red side, oak barrel fermentation brings out notes of coffee, chocolate and toffee (yum!).
Today, oak wine barrels are still widely used and you often see them stacked in those iconic pyramids in wineries and tasting rooms. In fact, they look so nice that once they've been retired from winemaking they're often repurposed as décor and wine gifts—think rustic tabletops, trivets and wine barrel signs and accessories for the home bar.
So, next time you visit a winery or spy some winery-inspired oak décor, take a deep whiff and wonder at the history and flavor-packing potential of the oak wine barrel.
Have you ever visited a winery and tasted oak-aged wines? Do you have a favorite wine recommendation?