What influence does oak have on wine?
Oak barrels are an integral part of winemaking. Long before we started using glass bottles/carboys, tanks or other vessels, wine was stored, moved and purchased in oak barrels. With today’s technology and equipment we do not necessarily need barrels for those uses. We have however acquired a taste for the texture, aromas, and flavor characteristics found in wine that has been aged in oak barrels.
There are 3 main types of oak. The first we will discuss is American oak. There are many oak trees in America, but the species that is used for making wine barrels is American White oak or Quercus Alba. It is commonly found throughout the eastern US, primarily in Missouri. American oak has a larger grain, which in turn imparts bigger more robust characteristics to the wine. Flavors such as coconut and vanilla make themselves immediately know, which is why bolder grapes like Cabernet take so well to American oak.
Another popular and well known oak is French Oak. French oak, from oak forests in France have a tighter, finer grain, which impart more subtle flavors than that of other oak barrels. Because of this, French oak barrels give off delicate smooth spices, and an earthy quality. Pinot Noir is an example of a wine varietal that benefits nicely from French oak.
The third type of oak barrel, considered a good midway point between American Oak and French Oak is Hungarian/Eastern European Oak. Hungarian oak barrels are made from the same type of oak species as French Oak but are considerably less expensive, and therefore are becoming more popular among winemakers for barreling/aging their wines.