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Why do we use oak barrels to make wine ?

Oak barrels have been used for 2000 years of wine history and here is why

· Wine Culture
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Invented in Gaul (known today as France) more than 2000 years ago, oak barrels were used mainly for storage and transportation of « cervoise », the ancestor of beer.

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A barrel-maker (« tonnelier » in French) in Burgundy

Today, oak barrels are widely used around the world for the production of premium wines. Let’s find out how and why !

A long history

The Greeks, who introduced wine in France 2500 years ago, were using amphoras to transport and ship their wine. For climatic reasons, they were lacking of forests and therefore preferred the usage of earth to produce their containers.

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Greek wine amphoras in Marseille History Museum, 300 before Christ

Other civilizations in the North, such as the Celts and the Gallics (the ancestors of the French), were evolving in colder regions where big forests could flourish. About 2000 years ago, these people were instead using oak to produce their barrels to carry and store their beer.

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Painting from Jacopo Bassano illustrating the making of Gallic oak barrels in Italy (16th century)

When Julius Caesar discovered the oak barrel when conquering Gaul 50 years before Christ, he found that this container was much more solid than amphoras and therefore generalized its usage into the Roman empire.

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Did you know barrels are so solid they can even carry hobbits ?

A French expertise

During the 17th century, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, main minister under Louis XIV, developed tall oak forests for the naval industry. At the same time, he released a law to define the management of these oak forests.

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An oak forest in the region of Bordeaux, Southwest of France

The law specifies that oak trees must be at least 180 years old when they are cut down. This is to ensure the renewal of the oak trees, and enabled over the centuries an exceptional quality in these French trees which grow very slowly.

Today, thanks to this national expertise, France produces 75% of the world demand in oak barrels.

Oak enhances the style of wine

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Stainless steel tanks are modern vats used to ferment and age the wine

After 2000 years of history and the invention of concrete and stainless steel tanks in the 20th century, oak barrels are still used in winemaking. Why is that ?

In fact, oak barrels are not only storage and transportation containers, they also directly influence the aromas and structure of wine.

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While in the barrel, wine breathes and its taste evolves

Indeed, an oak barrel is not completely airtight, and a bit of oxygen enters the barrel during the aging process. This creates a very slow and limited oxidation of the wine, softens tannins of red wines and creates more complex aromas.

The usage of new and small oak barrels creates strong aromas of vanilla, spices, caramel or coffee. Large and old barrels will not have the same aromatic impact.

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From left to right: the Bordeaux barrel, the Burgundy barrel, the Mosel barrel

A trend

Between 1980 and 2010, with the understanding of the positive impacts of oak barrels on wine style, the market trend switched towards strong oak flavours in wine.

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American wine critic Robert M. Parker Jr. wrote his first wine guidebook in 1975

This became especially true because of the most famous wine critic of modern times, Robert Parker. In love with red wines from Bordeaux, he developed a 100-point scale which would influence greatly the prices for newly released Bordeaux wines.

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Robert Parker tasting and rating wines in France in 1997

With a strong preference for wines with rich, smoky and oaky aromas, Robert Parker would always rate this type of wine higher than others, which is why many winemakers from Bordeaux started to use more new oak than they would traditionally do.

Today, the market trend continuously evolves, and consumers are now more attracted with easy-drinking and fruity wines, where oak flavours are not dominating the rest.

A price to pay

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Château Lafite Rotschild’s circular wine storehouse

The average price of a French oak barrel is 650€ (5200RMB) and are generally changed every 3 years. As you can imagine, this can be very costly and only the richest estates can change their barrels every year (Château Lafite-Rotschild owns its own barrel manufacturing workshop).

Using oak barrels in winemaking is therefore a costly process, which is usually reserved for the high-quality wines.

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The making of an American oak barrel

Today, American oak is also popular as its price is about twice cheaper as French oak. Another modern and very cheap alternative is the usage of oak chips and staves, which are added to the wine during winemaking to give the taste of oak.

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Oak chips are added to the wine during fermentation to give the taste of oak

This practice is forbidden in the production of French AOC wines but is widely used in the new world (USA, Chile, Argentina, New-Zealand…).

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Oak or no oak ? That is the question. But in France, it is all about tradition !

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