What to Know About Oak
If you have ever had a chance to tour our production facility, you will have seen hundreds of our precious oak barrels. Some curious wine lovers may wonder: why oak—and what makes these barrels so special? We select high-quality barriques (the technical term for our 225-liter barrels) for their ability to keep our wines cozy and safe while enriching them with elegant and complex flavor.
Oak has earned its rightful place of honor in the winemaking process. It seems that grapes and oak are just made to work together, a symbiotic relationship that creates the flavors and complexities you know and love. Just like wine, oak contains tannins which impart structure and flavor to the wine aged within it. Oak tannins can be more on the bitter side, but the process of barrel making involves "toasting" the wood, a process which mellows out the tannins and releases delicious compounds that bring essences of vanilla and cream to the picture. Just as the characteristics of a wine depend heavily on the soil and climate in which the fruit was grown, the nature of the oak also varies depending on the region of origin. Here at Ruby Hill Winery, we use barrels of primarily French, American, and Hungarian oak.
The bulk of oak for wine barrels in the US grows in forested areas of Minnesota and Wisconsin. American oak barrels are made from a different species than European oak, allowing for a few key differences including faster cultivation and development and more efficient production. With lively flavors of vanilla and coconut as well as mellow tones of caramel and cream soda, American oak also interacts with wine more than other cultivars, allowing for stronger flavor integration. Wines aged in American oak adopt this personality, along with soft and palatable tannins, making this an ideal choice for big reds and Chardonnays that emphasize the character of the oak.
French oak has a much more finicky makeup, with wood that must be split along the grain to create barrel staves. Because of this, only about 25% of the wood in a French oak tree can be used for barrel-making. Given that French oak trees are much smaller than their American counterparts, French oak barrels often have a much higher price tag. In the case of some wines, however, it is more than worth it. The tight wood grain of the French oak releases flavors much more slowly than American oak, imparting elegant and subtle complexities. Flavors including cinnamon and allspice join dark chocolate notes with a touch of bitterness, and are further complemented by a swirl of crème brûlée.
Hungarian oak barrels are unique in their own right; though crafted from the same species of oak as French oak barrels, Hungarian oak brings extra personality and spice. Unique toasted notes can include roasted coffee, campfire, leather, or black pepper, making this oak especially suitable for wines like Merlot that adapt well to interest and complexity. Hungarian oak lends structure and full mouthfeel with silky tannins, and is known to set wines up for longevity.
Of course, these 3 oaks are not the only cultivars for barrels. Sessile oak, sometimes called Irish oak is the most commonly used wood for Cognac production, and Mongolian oak (or “Mizunara”) is used in the production of Japanese whiskey. Furthermore, some winemakers will use barrels crafted form a combination of oak varietals, or blend wines aged in various types in order to get the perfect balance of flavor and structure.
Due to their expense and hardiness, barrels are often reused. Barrels may be used several times before retirement depending on the winemaker’s preference. After each use, however, the potency of the oak’s effect is reduced and the barrel will eventually be discarded. Because of this, we here at Ruby Hill Winery love to see our barrels off to their new lives as materials for home projects. We want the beautiful oaken craftsmanship to continue for as long as possible. If you’d like to become a part of the story of one of our barrels, now is the time! We are offering a few of our well-loved barrels for purchase—see below for more details.
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