Most of us know that the majority of fine wines are aged in oak barrels. But why? What are the advantages? Are there any disadvantages? What is the difference between American and French oak?
Aging Wine Before it is Bottled
After fermentation is completed and the wine is racked several times to remove the largest solids, the young wine is usually rough, raw and "green" and needs to settle and age for a period of time. This aging can be done in neutral containers such as stainless steel, cement lined vats, old large casks, etc. or it can be done in small relatively new wood barrels which are not neutral, but which will influence the developing wine.
Oak Barrel Influence
Subtle flavors are imparted to wine as it ages in a barrel. Different types of oak (French and American being the two most widely used) from different regions (Limousin, Nevers, Troncais, etc.) give differing levels of flavor to the wine (most often described as vanilla).
Wine, as it rests in the barrel, goes through subtle chemical changes, resulting in greater complexity and softening of the harsh tannins and flavors present at the end of fermentation. The effect of specific wood on different wines is the subject of great discussion and experimentation among winemakers throughout the world.
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