Wine Talk

Snooth User: JonDerry

All about Oak

Posted by JonDerry, Dec 2, 2011.

I recently heard that in addition to its contribution to the flavor and complexity of wines, that oak was also an effective anti-oxidant, helping the wine to age gracefully for longer periods of time. Also, that sediment in older wines had to do with the oak.

It prompted me to search for some additional articles or info on oak. Found this random link which gives a decent run down of the differences and origin of french oak, american oak, and how other oak producers are popping up (saw quite a few hungarian barrels in paso).

One tidbit I found interesting while browsing additional articles was that french oak barrels typically hold between 59-60 gallons of wine, and that about 5 gallons of it evaporates over the course of aging. That's an 8% loss!

Also, they estimate that at after around 5 years of use, oak barrels become neutral as to what they impart to the wine.


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Reply by GregT, Dec 2, 2011.

John, GregDP wrote a few articles about oak too.  A few points - French barrels vary.  In Bordeaux, many barrels are usually around 225 liters.  In Burgundy they're slightly larger.  But in both places, there are much larger barrels used.  Same in Rioja, where the barrels may hold many hundreds of gallons of wine. The key to oak however, isn't really the flavor it imparts, although in recent years that's become much more important.  The anti-oxidative properties of oak generally come from the tannins in the wood but even that isn't really the important thing - the most important thing oak does is allow oxygen exchange. 

Wood is porous and that's why you lose some wine - the "angel's share".  But the slight porosity allows for a small ingress of oxygen and while you don't want a lot of oxygen in your wine, that small bit is believed to aid in the stabilization and ageability of wine.  It's why it doesn't really matter if you're getting any oak 'flavor' from the barrel and why many winemakers prefer to use old barrels.  They don't want the flavor, they want the mechanical properties of the wood.  So in places like the Rhone and Rioja for example, where much wine is aged for many years in wood, it's not necessarily fermented or aged in new barriques but rather in large, old tanks. For the same reason, people use cement or now, terra-cotta, (which has become uber-cool in an attempt to reconstruct ancient methods).  The idea is that all of those containers allow for a bit of exchange.  In the case of the terra cotta, it's actually also allowing evaporation, so that has a cooling effect and if you're fermenting, it keeps the temp from going too high. 

BTW, it's that evaporation that led to some innovations.  They used to marvel at it and ignore it.  In the 1600s, Pontac topped off his barrels.  Leaving the barrels partially full resluted in too much oxidation.  Topping off kept the oxidation to a minimum.  His wine turned out pretty good and he was able to charge more for it.  It became pretty famous and still is.  It's Haut Brion.

Those Hungarian barrels are generally from the mountains above the villages in Tokaj.  Supposedly the same species as the French oak in Alliers.  A few years ago they were much cheaper and lots of people bought them - Gallo bought hundreds, as did a few producers in Rioja.   But I think the prices are pretty high these days.

Reply by D9sus4, Dec 2, 2011.

Jon, here's a link to the three part series GregDP wrote on Oak:

Also, the sediment in some wine bottles, not necessarily old, does not come from the oak strictly speaking. It can come from a variety of things naturally present in wine grapes, especially reds which are left in contact with the skins for a prolonged period. Most wineries filter their wines to prevent sediment in the bottle, some do not, especially true in France. Personally, I prefer my red wines to have some sediment as it is a good indicator that the wine was not overly manipulated.  

Reply by GregT, Dec 3, 2011.

Yeah that's true - the sediment should be from the grapes and not from the oak! The solids in the wine that come from the grape skins, as well as pieces of skin, fall out over time.  One other thing I forgot to mention is that some wineries re-use barrels but scrape them.  The wine doesn't penetrate very far into the wood so if you scrape off about an eighth of an inch or so, you get down to "new" wood once again.  Reduces the cost of the barrels substantially. 

I don't mind some sediment but I don't associate a lack of it with "manipulation" in any way.  Some grapes will produce more sediment than others. If a wine's racked several times, that also reduces the sediment. If it's aged for a while before bottling, that will reduce it too. It's why you don't find a lot of sediment in classic Rioja. Also, one reason for filtering and fining is to aid in stabilization of the wine.

Reply by dmcker, Dec 3, 2011.

The '82 Cakebread cab I mentioned a week or so ago in another thread threw absolutely no sediment; was drinkable to the last drop. Would be curious to talk to the winemaker about filtering/fining took place.

Oh yeah, and the oak was pretty well integrated by now...  ;-)

Reply by D9sus4, Dec 4, 2011.

I agree that the presence of sediment is not a defining (pun intended) characteristic of a great wine. It is just another of those subjective preferences like Oaked or Unoaked Sauvignon Blanc, or induced malolactic fermentation. 

But, sight is one of the four senses we employ in evaluating a wine, so when I see sediment, or a 1/2 inch accumulation of tartrate crystals on a cork (like the 2005 Howell Mountain Cabernet I drank last night), I feel more optimistic about the wine I am about to taste. Just as surely as I would when inspecting an old red wine and seeing that it is not thinning too much, or is too brown.

There is no right or wrong opinion here I believe, just opinions. Here's a link to an article on this subject in Forbes: 

Reply by Richard Foxall, Dec 8, 2011.

Quick note on the sediment issue, because a response to anything about oak would be very long: Winemaker friends of mine (amateurs who cannot compete because they have access to the facilities of some famous wineries) have shared a lot of their wine with me over the years.  It is usually fairly young, but I've had it over different time spans, up to probably five years.  And never ANY sediment.  Finally I asked and the answer was simple:  They rack it by hand like you would pour an old bottle.  No fining, no filtering. They then top the wine when they move it to aging barrels. They lose a fair bit of wine.  Even (especially?) a premium wine that is sold for big money wouldn't sacrifice the volume or do it as slowly as they do.  Too expensive all around. But maybe Cakebread went that route.  I don't view sediment as a bonus, but I think a lot of folks (the kinds of folks who want to impress but haven't bothered to try to debunk wine myths) think it is the mark of some kind of authenticity/classiness/age-worthiness.  Given that my friends do everything by hand and use little intervention beyond sulfites (depending on what you call intervention, but using sulfur dioxide is virtually universal) and produce micro quantities, I just don't know how much more authentic wine can get.  (Sure, they measure stuff in the lab to make sure it's progressing properly, but anyone who doesn't is lying or courting financial ruin--sorry to be the one to tell the "natural" folks, but what makes it wine and not vinegar is controlling the fermentation.)

Not just skins in the sediment, but can include dead yeast cells. 

When I get around to a longer response, I have some questions about scraping and toast levels, which I will probably also research by calling some winemakers.

Reply by JonDerry, Dec 8, 2011.

Interesting stuff Fox...sediment is definitely something we must get to the bottom of!

Scraping can't be good, I mean unless you hire a professional scraper?

Reply by Richard Foxall, Dec 8, 2011.

Barrelology is a huge subject--way past my expertise.  I think the scraping is done by "interns" who are people who want to build a resume in the wine business, meet some contacts, and can afford to work without pay.  I've seen some pix of it being done, and I know a couple winery owners (super small, low production, barely getting by) who have told me about cleaning the barrels for re-use themselves.  But there's money in those stained barrels:  Spirits makers will reuse some barrels for aging spirits and specifically want wood that has, say, port residue. (Balvenie Portwood 21 year is $135 or more a bottle, on a quick check.)  Here's an article about the trend.

I suspect a lot of wineries are content to clean the barrels well and assume that most of what is in the wood is going to stay there, and what isn't will be similar to the wine.  The bigger concern is always going to be microbial contamination while the barrels sit empty.  Nothing that a healthy dose of SO2 can't cure. ;-)

Reply by GregT, Dec 8, 2011.

The dead yeast cells, etc., are why people have been fining their wine since Roman times and maybe earlier. Filtering is a bit more recent.  And that racking is why you don't find a lot of sediment in traditional aged wines from Rioja.  But it's a good point that bacteria can live in the wood.  It's a source of TCA contamination too - even the corks that close up the bung hole, which is why so many people use plastic.

As far as scraping - there's some contention that it scraped barrels don't produce the same effect that new wood does. May be so, but they do keep the costs down.  Columbia Crest used to do it - I'm not sure if they still do, but it's one reason you could pick up one of their wines for under $10 and it would be a good wine for the price. I don't have a problem with it, in fact I applaud it, but like everything else, I suppose you do have some risks associated.

Reply by Richard Foxall, Dec 9, 2011.

Rioja just doesn't get the credit it deserves.  As GregT knows, I am always on the hunt for those pre-aged Riojas, and I really can't recall sediment being prevalent.  And those wines are routinely 7-10 years old when they leave the winery, then sometimes a couple more before I buy them, often. 

Cleaning and re-using barrels is totally common, and there are even horror stories of people being in the huge barriques when they started filling them up with gas to sterilize them.  (Used to see enormous redwood barrels in Napa wineries when I was a kid, so big you could fit a small wedding party in there.) I guess scraping could be like sanding cedar shoe trees to refresh them, but since all barrels have to be heated some to bend the wood staves, I wonder what that does to any toasting effect?  Do the wineries then re-toast the barrels?  Or only use them for batches that they want minimal toasting on?  I've never seen wineries with torches for toasting the barrels for re-use, but I guess that's possible.

I can also imagine "scraping" being light enough that it gets old wine residues off the barrel without gouging, digging up, or freeing the wood beneath.

All of these choices--or even deciding to vinify in stainless or concrete--really put the lie to the idea that "natural" wine could ever really be marketable.  Add in the inevitable bottle variability that would exist--you can ameliorate by blending lots, too, but is that so natural, or is it a choice?--and you start to realize that "natural" either has to be defined in a very minimal way that will allow a lot of wines to be considered natural that aren't part of anyone's movement, or virtually no wine would qualify.  Frankly, I'm really glad that they control something about the temperature, for starters, or there would be no wine that made it out the door of the winery.  Underground caves?  Probably among our first inventions, and therefore an intervention.

Reply by JonDerry, Dec 9, 2011.

It's definitely good to know that a huge cost for wineries is oak. When you see Charles Shaw produce wine for $2 retail, and i've had a good friend in the business who told me the entire cost of bottle, cork, production, etc. comes out to around $1/bottle, where are all the costs coming from? By the way, CS can produce $1 wholesale wine and make money because they have the market cornered on grapes, bottles, corks, etc. Anyway, the bigger costs are with oak, labor, marketing, overhead (rent/warehouse, etc.)

Interesting how bacteria can live in the wood and cork, pesky stuff.

Oak scraping is an interesting subject...definitely green, but then hygenic concerns and prestige cut into the practice. There's definitely some potential for wine to become even more eco friendly. Thinking about all that oak, and the shipping of the oak puts a damper on all the biodynamic harvesting that's getting all the attention, but progress is progress.

Reply by Richard Foxall, Dec 9, 2011.

Barrels, as opposed to oak, are what's costly.  Oak can be in the form of chips, spikes and other flavoring agents.  Barrel making is an art that still has to be done largely by hand and can't be outsourced too easily--it takes a while to learn. You can buy the barrels from anywhere in the world, but if you want Francois Freres, it ain't gonna be done in Shanghai or Manila. Someday, maybe the Chinese will dominate the low end, but not yet.  

Reusing barrels has always been common--neutral oak means a barrel that's been used until all the flavor (at least on the layers in contact with the wine) has leached out.  Then the purpose of the barrel is slow oxidation, pretty much exclusively. Scraping off the lees would get you a clean enough barrel that sulfur dioxide could do its job.  Scraping off the top layer of wood (which is what I am wondering about--are they doing that?) could refresh the oak, but I think then you've got to re-toast it. 

Next time I see the winemaker who provides all the barrels that we use as planters at our kids' school, I'll get some clarification--he knows Pahlmeyer and a lot of folks, so if anyone at any level is doing that, he would know. Or I could just do research and find a place that blasts barrels! That one doesn't re-toast, but it is done at this place in Chile if you ever want to make wine there. The English at Bacoring is pretty entertaining.

Shaw  makes a little money at $2 because all the bottles, corks, labeling is the same, it buys grapes wherever they are the cheapest (sometime you might get To Kalon if they don't sell all their grapes, although I doubt it) and labels it all "California," and has enormous economies of scale. 

Reply by Gregory Dal Piaz, Dec 9, 2011.

Scaping barrels for reuse is something I've heard and seen in practice for large valume barrels. I think you are right Foxall that the point might be lost on smaller barrels if the wood wasn't retoasted. After all you'ld just be expsoing raw wood, with potentiall agressive wood tannins to leach into the wine without adding the buffering sweetness and flavors the toast provides.

As the website for Bacowood says, they're simply removing "removes a fine layer between a 1.5 and 2 millimeters of thickness of the inner, eliminating all sedimentation, ". The Spanish text continues stating that the conserve the maximum of the toasted wood.

It's not really renovatig the barrels, simply cleaning out mostly tartaric acid crystals that prevent oxigen transfer through the staves, as well as and any bacteria or yeast that have taken up residence. A good thing since this allows for continued use of essentially neutral barrels.

Reply by Richard Foxall, Dec 9, 2011.

GdP, what's the maximum number of times you can re-use a barrel, if you know?  I have heard of five years, and have been told that, generally, the barrels are neutral after three.  But what's the limit?  And what happens that ends the life of the barrel?  There's no shortage at all of used barrels here in the Bay Area, and I know that wineries consider them a major expense that has to amortized over a fairly short life, but what determines the life span? 

BTW, had a pinot today from Callaway (vanity label of the guy who invented the Big Bertha driver, for JD) that was pretty good, and it was 15% new oak--so was the rest stainless, or older barrels?  A geek could easily want to know whether all the rest was just in one or two year old oak. It wasn't bad, although it started out like the epitome of Cali style pinot, all sweet cherry and cola flavors, with what seemed like more than a little oak--but pinot is delicate enought that even a little oak would show through.

Reply by Richard Foxall, Dec 9, 2011.

Someday I'm going to take a trip to Napa and visit the barrel refurbishers.  After I taste at every winery in the valley and up in the hills.

Reply by EMark, Dec 10, 2011.

A noble quest, Fox.  Thank you for all your hard work on our behalf.

Reply by Giacomo Pevere, Dec 10, 2011.

@Foxall: u are talking about large volume barrels or barriques (just a personal english term issue...) ?

About large volume barrels i don't think there's a limit. Some winemakers use same, with some maintenance, large barrels for decades.

Classic bordeaux barrique give more or less half of its substances (50%) every step (in italian we call it "passaggio"). 50% first step, 25% second....

After 2-3 steps of course barrique aromatic substances and tannins are mostly gone but it's still usefull for oxigen transfer. Barrique must be cleaned to prevent problems but i personally know winemakers that use it for 6-7 steps as a smooth oxigen trasfer.

Reply by JonDerry, Dec 10, 2011.

Fox - I heard that it was 5 years of use for oak to then become neutral. You'd have to guess that after 3 years, the oak starts to bend toward neutral. Many wineries tend to prefer the use of new oak combined with stainless steel (see a lot of 50% new oak these days, the balance stainless).

I'm not sure myself about the larger volume barrels often used in Rhone, it seems like they might use them longer because they're much harder to move!

Reply by Richard Foxall, Dec 10, 2011.

giacobbe, another good distinction.  I think there was no limit to the number of times that the big redwood barrels got used--but their role in the quality of the wine was a good question. Bordeaux type barrels are the ones I was referring to primarily, and things in the same general size range. 

Now, if you want to read the notes of a guy who has spent some time on barrelology, I found this from Jeff Cohn, formerly of Rosenblum and now out on his own. Next time you go wine tasting, JD, ask them some really tough questions about the barrels.  And, btw, when I read, 15% new oak, I don't usually see anything telling me if the rest were in stainless, neutral oak, concrete, or terra cotta...

Don't thank me prematurely, Emark: We both will have to live to very old age before I finish tasting all the wine I can and start visiting the barrel refurbishers.  ;-)

Reply by GregT, Dec 10, 2011.

Foxall, people in CA use French barriques in large part because they want the flavor.  As Giac said, the rule of thumb is that each use halves the flavoring, so for the equivalent of one year in first year barrels, you'd need 2 years of second year barrels.  Some people don't want all the "aggressive" notes so they'll use the barrels for a few months for some young wine and then put the better wine in those barrels for extended aging.  There are any number of options for refurbishing - scraping only, scraping and re-toasting, scraping, re-toasting and replacing heads, etc.  It all depends on what you want to spend and what you want to achieve.  But there are people who use old barriques because they want the mechanical properties of the wood but don't want the flavoring. Edmund St John for example, makes some great Syrah in CA and doesn't want the wood to influence the flavor.  A number of producers in the Rhone are similar.

There's a lot more life to a well-made barrel than you might think.  And in this case I'm not talking about barrique, I'm talking about very large vats.  Some of the old houses in Rioja have been using the same barrels for several generations.  Every so often they'll have to replace a stave or two and you see these black barrels with a bright new strip of wood. Also some of the old houses in Jerez and in the south of France in places like Maury, have barrels that are still filled with wine and that are over 100 years old.

More interestingly, some places in Italy that produce balsamic vinegar have barrels that are well over 100 years old.  Yep, vinegar ages in barrels just like wine.  An acquaintance who is a third generation importer of all things delicious and Italian, showed me pics of a few barrels that he purchased for his children. If you want to taste some vinegar check out the link.  At $200 for 3.4 ounces, it's as pricey as any wine.  Better than just about any wine too! I've only had it a couple times.

BTW - the barrels are never refurbished. They literally fall apart at some point.  That's how you know they're at the end of their useful life. 

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