Unpolished Grape 101: Your Wine Barrel Questions Answered!

Where do wine barrels come from? What’s a Cooper? Why do we age wine in oak?

Read on to learn wine barrel basics!

Where Do Wine Barrels Come From?

Wine barrels, most commonly made from French and American Oak, are wooden vessels used to ferment grapes and/or age wine over time. Much of French oak comes from central and northern France, whereas American oak is sourced from the Midwest, Virginia and Appalachia. Due to climatic differences between regions, variations between the American and French oak trees will have varying effects on the final taste of a wine. A winemaker must choose where to source his/her oak barrels, depending on the type of wine they wish to make.

What’s a Cooper?

A cooper is an artisan that makes a wine barrel. Coopers play an intricate and vital role in wine-making, as their crafty skill-set is critical to the way wine barrels are designed and impact the way an aged wine tastes.

First, oak trees are carefully cut into staves (wooden strips).

Next, coopers arrange the staves very tightly into a rounded barrel shape, placing rings on either end to hold the staves in place.

Once complete, coopers will toast the insides of the barrels to whatever level the wine-maker indicated. They may choose “lightly toasted” or a heavier toast depending on how they want the wine to age and the flavors they are hoping to impart.

Why Do We Age Wine In Oak?

When wine sits in oak for extended periods of time, it develops flavors of cedar, vanilla, spices, etc. French oak imparts more subtle spicy flavors into the wine, whereas American oak creates stronger flavors of coconut and vanilla. These aromas and flavors naturally exist in oak and mix with the wine as it sits. The higher the toast level, the stronger some of these flavors and the more “Smokey” a wine may taste.

Although the staves are so tight that liquid does not seep in and out, oxygen can still enter the barrels at small rates…. think slow-drip. This is a good thing, in moderation of course. Oxygen interacts with the wine, causing it to form additional complex flavors like chocolate and coffee. On the contrary, over-oxidizing wine could make it taste like vinegar, so this process must be carefully managed.

Oak also plays a role in tannins in two ways. First, the slow mixing of oxygen and wine over time will help to soften the harsh tannins found in grapes, stems and seeds. Aging wine in oak will make the tannins silkier and the wine more drinkable. For example, Tannat requires a longer aging process because it’s one of the most tannic grapes in the world. On the contrary, wines like Pinot Noir have fewer tannins, and may not require much aging at all. Second, oak barrels also have tannins, because tannins exist in wood too. So the barrel’s own tannins will mix with the wine and add complexity (especially in fresh white wine absent of tannin.)

Many white and delicate red wines, are not aged in oak barrels, because these additional flavors would overpower their freshness and elegance, i.e. fresh Sauvignon Blanc or an ultra light style of Pinot Noir. However, oak is common for most reds that require the oxygen and time to transform the wine into something yummy and magical.

So when someone says a wine tastes “Oaky” this is why!


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