Wood has a considerable impact on the perception of the organoleptic qualities of the wine. Much of its bouquet is acquired in contact with new oak barrels. The intensity and quality of the wood, its character, evolves differently according to the geographical origin of the oak, the manufacturing techniques, the ageing conditions and ageing cycle.
The micro-oxygenation, which is linked to the porosity of the wood, improves the color stability and reduces astringency. Regarding the aromas, the toasting results in the formation of aromatic components in amounts related to the intensity and duration of the roasting. The notes of licorice, smoke and notes that are reminiscent of carnations are a good example. On the contrary, other aromatic components present in the wine, notes of coconut for example, can be destroyed by an overly aggressive toasting.
Depending upon the nature of the oak, its species, the place of growth and its structure, there are significant differences from one oak tree to another, and so there will be from one barrel to another. For example, a coarse-grained oak provide a greater wealth of dry matter and more soluble tannins, i.e. a bitter touch. On the contrary, fine-grained oak will easily produce a more woody character, even to the point of becoming a defect. To summarize: the higher the porosity the less oaky aromas and flavours will appear in the wine.
New oak barrels help the winemaker to steer and balance the ageing process much easier and its use is essential for the major wines. The most notable contribution is the slow and continuous penetration of oxygen, allowing a positive evolution for the development of aromas. There is also a decrease in bitterness and in the astringency of the tannins. The wine will be well-aired, healthier and, therefore, the wine would need a lesser quantity of SO2 and less racking. At least during the first months of the ageing process, a natural clarification takes place that helps avoid excessive handling.
The new oak barrel allows the precipitation of proteins, it structures and stabilizes the color, protects the flavors and aromas of the wine, besides a powerful bacteria reduction that used barrels do not provide.
New oak is also indicated in the malolactic process/fermentation, as long as the winemaker has a masterful grasp and an in-depth knowledge of the process.
To complicate things further, apart from the new oak, its type, origin or toasting, the oak should fit the style of wine you want to do. Wine pH, temperature and humidity of the warehouse also influence its evolution.
However, the most important thing is the art, the technique, the experience and practice of the winemaker, in order to attain the perfect communion between the components of the wine and the wood's. New wood is not just an expensive accessory, but an essential for great wines.
Photo: Oscar Antón