Ask Eno: Oak Forward

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Dear Eno,

Why do wineries use only a portion of new oak barrels?  I noticed lately on a lot of winery websites that they specify the percentage of new barrel used for their wines.  



Dear David,

Good question!  While there are certainly some wineries that use exclusively new oak barrels for their wines (e.g. First Growth Bordeaux, Opus One, etc), there are a few reasons why many others do not age 100% of their wine entirely in new oak:

* Economics – Wine barrels are hugely expensive.  Some types of wood and sizes are more costly than others, but in general they are quite pricey.  Just one single top quality 225 liter barrel made of French oak might cost anywhere from $800 to $3,500!  American oak is much less expensive, running at $350-500 per barrel, but this can add up quite fast even so.  If a winery only needed one barrel in a given year this cost would be nearly negligible but in reality most wineries need hundreds of barrels at a time. 

* Stylistic Goals – There are many decisions during wine production in order to achieve certain styles and characters in the finished wine.  How long a wine is aged in oak, as well as the size of the barrel, age of the barrel, type of wood, and its char level all result in remarkable differences in the finished wine.  New oak barrels impart a lot more flavor into a wine versus barrels that have been used several times.  Winemakers therefore will decide how much of their wine they want in new oak based on if they want or don’t want that heavy oak flavor.  It’s worth noting that it’s uncommon for the contents of a single barrel of wine to go directly to bottle.  This means that if a winery ages 20% of their wine in new oak, and the rest in older neutral barrels, after maturation they are all blended together before bottling, with each finished bottle containing a carefully considered proportion of wine from new barrels and old barrels.  The higher percentage of new oak used, the more the winemaker is aiming for an oak-forward style of finished wine.  Barrel age/use information included on a producer’s website or on the bottle can be a useful tool for you as a consumer for deciding if a bottle of wine is a style you enjoy or not. 

* Environmental Considerations – Using mostly or only new oak barrels each year for winemaking is a very ecologically unsustainable practice.  As mindful winemaking approaches become more widespread, the somewhat wasteful practice of new-barrels-only falls out of vogue.  

* Quality Indicator – Another reason a producer might speak openly about barrel age/use is to communicate quality to the would-be drinker.  By stating barrels used, they are also telling you “Hey, we used oak barrels, not cheaper alternatives like chips or oak powders!” and in the case of some pricey bottles they are also further justifying the cost of the wine by conveying the costs that went into making them!

Aubrie Talarico is part of Eno’s team that answers your toughest questions or curiosities about wine, beer, spirits, sake, and cider. Email questions to and read the answers in Eno’s E-newsletter!

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