Initially wood barrels were mainly used for storage, transport, and wine preservation purposes. The physical and organoleptic influence of the material on the end product was not really taken into account. It was merely a container, not much more. This meant that a variety of wood was used, from acacias, poplars, beeches, chestnuts, or cherry trees that grew around the vineyards.
Wine producers often had their own cooperages on site to produce barrels.
Over time, they gained greater experience and focused their attention on one type of wood in particular – oak – and the aromatic nuances and physical properties it imparted to the wine.
Over 250 species of oak make up the Quercus family, but only three are used to manufacture barrels: sessile oak, common oak, and white oak (which is native to North America). Depending on the style of wine the winemaker is seeking, he or she will opt for one type of oak or another. Consideration will also be given to the provenance, size, and age of the barrel (new or used), the toast level (the more toasted the barrel, the fewer tannins it brings to the wine), and the different aromatic nuances present in the wood. This brings us to the source of the oak currently used in wine production, the places of origin: France, the United States, and Eastern Europe.
The physical properties of oak are incomparable when it comes to clarifying and stabilizing the wine, as well as adding depth to the colour of red wines and softening the texture of wines overall.
American oak displays an exotic profile reminiscent of sweet spices and coconut, smoke and tobacco; the way the oak is cut results in more intense aromas. Oak from Eastern Europe or the Baltic countries might not have such a distinctive profile, but the wood is still very useful. The most prized oak of all, however, still comes from France.
American oak barrels are harder and more impermeable, made from wood with a much larger grain than French oak. As a result, the wood extracts are imparted to the wine more swiftly and with greater ease, which reduces astringency and softens the rough edges faster.
In France, the oak from the Limousin forests is held in the highest regard by cognac and brandy producers. When it comes to wine, the finest oak originates from the forests of Nevers, Alliers, and Vosgos.
The Limousin forests are mostly home to common oak. If the tree has grown in fertile soil with little competition from other plants, the veins in the wood will be more distinctive (the space between the annual growth rings will be wider). This is because the spring growth – expressed in more porous wood than summer growth – will have a stronger presence. By contrast, the forests in central France and Alliers are predominantly sessile oak, and the lower soil fertility, along with the competition and influence of other kinds of trees, slow their growth. This is why the wood of these oak trees will have finer veins and grain.
Various analyses of the wood composition have shown that sessile oak presents a higher concentration of aromatic compounds like vanilla and methyl octalactone. The common oak displays a higher phenol (tannin) content.
Prior to crafting the barrels, the wood is stored outside. This air-drying process takes advantage of climatic elements to eliminate unpleasant or excessive flavours and tannins.
European oak – particularly French oak – has a softer, more porous wood with finer tannins. It is more labour-intensive and more raw material is lost in the process, because of the particular extraction method that is used (the wood isn't sawn but split). The end result offers winemakers aromatic characteristics that range from flavours reminiscent of toasted bread to creamy lactic notes (butter) and vanilla.
The porosity of the wood allows for slow controlled oxygenation of the wine, rounding out tannins (and contributing its own), stabilizing the colour, and adding greater textural complexity
The finer pores of French oak release the wood extracts at a slower, more gradual and balanced pace. This fact is reflected in the resulting wines which offer a more elegant, delicate, and undeniably distinctive profile, making French oak the first choice for carefully crafted, superior quality wines.
At Familia Torres, we firmly believe that oak-imparted notes are an important component of certain wines, but their presence should always be complementary rather than dominant. An overpowering presence of oak would dilute the varietal expression, the primary avenue for conveying a sense of place. This is why we use barrels with a capacity of 300 litres rather than the more traditional 225-litre size.
This allows wine and oak to enter into a symbiosis with a proven affinity. An embrace between two gifts of nature that were born to complement one another.