The Romans came across oak barrels made for beer during their invasion of Gaul, and adopted them widely because they were far more practical than the clay amphorae that then were more usually used for wine. Made of tight-grained oak staves held together with metal bands, sealed with cork bungs or oil-soaked rags, they are robust, watertight and easy to transport and store by being rolled along the ground and stacked on top of one another.
Not only this, wine in barrels often improves as time goes by. Compounds in the wood soften harsh tannins in the wine, and impart flavours including vanilla, spices, nuts and smoke, especially if the wood has been slightly charred before being filled.
Wooden barrels also work another kind of magic: micro-oxidisation. Tiny amounts of oxygen pass through the wood into the wine, intensifying and stabilising its colour, rounding off astringent edges, and giving a smooth creaminess to both taste and texture.
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Barrels vary in size from traditional French 225-litre barriques to much larger foudres which may contain 20,000 litres or more. New oak barriques will give the most strident oak effects to the wine, while barrels that have been previously used and/or are larger will leave a gentler mark of the wood. The longer the wine remains in the barrel, the more profound will be the impact.
These days, most oak-influenced wine is fermented in stainless steel then transferred to barrels for ageing before being bottled. Oak barrels, whatever their size, are expensive to buy and maintain, so often cheaper wines will have oak chips or staves added to the fermentation vessel to add a thump of wood flavours without the expense of barrelling.
Red wines are most commonly oak-aged but you can also find whites that have been fermented and/or aged in barrels. Bottle labels don’t always tell you if they have been barrel-aged so it’s best to research before shopping or ask for advice from your local wine shop. There’s a huge variety of oak-aged wines out there to explore and enjoy – have fun exploring which styles you like best.
Oak-aged wines to buy
Susana Balbo Signature Barrel-Fermented Torrontés 2019
Fermented in French oak barrels to give a herbal savouriness, this is pure but intense with a lime juice freshness and a silky texture. Try with seafood and Thai dishes.
Les Terrasses St Nicolas de Bourgueil
Loire cabernet franc, part fermented in oak foudres then transferred to stainless steel vats. This gives structure but doesn’t overpower its floral, fragrant nose and bright, summery berry fruit. Served slightly chilled to bring out its crunchy texture and stony minerality.
Vasse Felix Filius Cabernet-Merlot 2019
Aged for 11 months in new and used French oak barriques. With black cherries, blackcurrants and plums, plus plush tannins and woody spices, this wears its oak influence with pride but still maintains finesse. Try with the beef cheek tacos with green salsa.
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