Oak ageing is an art. In fact, after grapes, oak is the second most vital (and expensive) component of many wines, having a crucial impact on the quality and final outcome of the wine. After all, the barrels a winemaker chooses for the process, has a marked effect on how the wine will taste, lending flavours that range from sweet to austere. Yet, oak is not always a welcome addition to many wine drinkers, with market trends having seen massive shifts to and from heavy oak usage on big, bold wines such as Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. So, the question stands: why do wines get aged in oak barrels?
THE MODUS OPERANDI
Before the use of glass bottles, people used palm wood containers to transport wine in Mesopotamia. It was difficult to keep the wine fresh for a long period of time and different storage containers were designed, including clay amphorae. However, it was the Romans who discovered that wine stored in oak barrels would keep for longer and also become smoother – tasting better. Barrels were also easier to transport (they would roll), and so oak barrels became the modus operandi, with most wines stored and sold in them. Today, while we’ve outgrown the necessity for barrels to store and transport wine, we’ve come to acquire a taste for it.
A STYLISTIC CHOICE
In truth, the contribution of oak is often not needed in wine, especially in the production of wines that aim to achieve light, fruity expressions such as Sauvignon Blanc – which typically only see the inside of a stainless-steel tank. Nowadays, when a winemaker uses oak, it is an intentional decision, made thanks to three key contributions it gives to a wine:
1. It adds flavor compounds – including aromas of vanilla, clove, smoke and coconut.
2. It allows the slow ingress of oxygen – a process which makes wine taste smoother and less astringent.
3. It provides a suitable environment for certain metabolic reactions to occur (specifically Malolactic Fermentation) – which makes wines taste creamier.
The influence of oak is a delicate art: it depends on how the oak flavour is added to the wine. You can compare it to cooking and the use of salt. The right amount of salt will enhance your boeuf bourguignon. Too much will completely ruin it (bye-bye to your dreams of being the next Julia Child / Jamie Oliver). Therefore you will often find tasting notes that explain how much ‘new oak’ versus ‘second’ or ‘third-fill’ barrels were used in the making of your wine. As you would think, second-hand oak barrels offer softer flavours, therefore winemakers often need to have a clear vision regarding the style of the wine they want to produce and its age-ability. Typically, a wine that spends a lot of time in new oak will be able to age for a considerable amount of time. Therefore, sourcing quality oak is crucial when producing high-quality wine, and so a barrel is a premium item made by some of the world’s most masterful craftsmen: coopers.
A MASTERFUL CRAFT
A person who makes a barrel is called a ‘cooper’ and they work in a ‘cooperage’. The art of coopering is an ancient skill that dates back centuries and requires a lot of skill. In fact, the only way to learn the trade is from an already experienced cooper.
Typically, the journey of a barrel begins in an oak forest. France is the largest source of European Oak, where the trees range from 160 to 250 years old. Traditionally, oak has been used for wine barrels, as opposed to other wood, because it is stronger, denser and contains natural compounds which help improve the quality, age-ability and flavour of the wine. The sustainability of these forests is incredibly important worldwide, and in France, there is a certification called the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC), ensuring the correct management of these ancient trees.
When a block of trees is ready, a wood specialist arrives to assess the quality, and then different coopers from cooperages bid on the block. Only the highest quality wood can be used for barrel-making, which is generally the straightest part of the tree with the narrowest grain. Once the wood is prepared and ready, it’s time for the cooper to get to work.
The shape is everything when it comes to barrel making, as it needs to be watertight without the aid of glue. Then, according to the winemaker’s preference, the barrels get toasted over a fire. Toasting is a process of singeing the inside of the wine barrel to achieve different oak flavour in the wine and helps transform the tannins so they can soften and mature the wine. Toasting can be light, medium or heavy or anything in-between – it all depends on the winemaker’s specifications.
18 DIFFERENT COOPERAGES
At Bellingham, Cellarmaster Richard Duckitt and the winemaking team source barrels from about 18 different cooperages. The reason for this is to optimise the barrels per vineyard, crafting different components of wine to work into one final unique blend.
“We tried to narrow down our cooperages but found it practically impossible. Yes – all coopers have access to the same forests, so barrels should be more or less the same, but they’re not. It’s very similar to wine and terroir actually. We like cooperage we work with, as they all offer their own style which has an impact on the final wine” explains Richard.
OUR BERNARD SERIES SMALL BARREL SMV
All of our red wines as well as select whites are barrel-aged at Bellingham, and this week, we have selected our Bellingham Bernard Series Small Barrel SMV as our top pick seeing as it was barrel matured for a period of 14 months. The effect of time spent in barrel includes softer, elegant tannins, more spice and an intricate and powerful palate.
Bellingham Bernard Series Small Barrel SMV
An intricate blend led by Shiraz, with Mourvèdre and Viognier
On the eyes: Deep ruby with a bright crimson rim
On the nose: Alluring black and red berry and cherry aromas layered with dark chocolate, winter spice, rose and violet
On the palate: An intricate intensely fruited palate that is both powerful and graceful. A long, full finish of good length and complexity.
Delicious with: Rosemary roasted lamb, chargrilled beef steaks, spicy sausages or tomato-based vegetable ragout
Bellingham Homestead Shiraz
This Shiraz has a deep ruby colour with plums, blackberry and pepper spice persisting from entry to finish.
On the eyes: Intense dark ruby red colour
On the nose: Plums, blackcurrants and pepper with hints of dark chocolate and mixed spice
On the palate: On the palate, it boasts with blackberry fruits, violets and black pepper.
Delicious with: Smoked Rooibos and Paprika grilled fillet of beef served with Grandma’s sticky potatoes, slow-cooked beef brisket or Rosemary infused Springbok loin.
Learn More: https://bellinghamwines.com/wines/shiraz/
Bellingham Homestead Pinotage
Ripe red fruit, sweet spices and soft tannins are hallmarks of this wine.
On the eyes: An intense dark red middle with a ruby red rim
On the nose: Sweet spices, plums and mulberries with hints of vanilla on the nose
On the palate: Hints of ripe and juicy raspberry, strawberry and black cherry flavours are supported by well-integrated oak spice on the palate with an exciting tannin structure.
Delicious with: It pairs perfectly with Rosemary and Elderberry roasted leg of lamb, venison, spare ribs with a rich barbecue sauce, oxtail or osso buco.
Learn More: https://bellinghamwines.com/wines/pinotage/