The subject of oak used in winemaking is a very broad topic. The effect of oak aging on wine generally adds important flavor and aroma components, as well as color and complexity. When looking at oak aging’s effect there are many factors to take into consideration like type, grain, barrel size, age and toast.
While most premium wines in the world see at least a bit of oak aging, it doesn’t necessarily mean that all wines aged in oak are superior. Some grape varieties would not be able to handle the wood very well and it may not be the style the winemaker is looking for.
This could be said for our local vino quotidiano Dolcetto. Staying local, let’s have a look at oak influence especially dealing with our beloved Nebbiolo grape.
Unoaked Or Briefly Oaked Nebbiolo
Let’s face it. Nebbiolo may be the greatest grape variety in the world! This is especially true when made into a Roero, Barbaresco or Barolo DOCG after a substantial period of oak aging.
However, some of my favorite quality value wines on the market are just “simple” Langhe Nebbiolo or Nebbiolo d’Alba which often see very little oak aging or none at all.
In this case, without the oak, you get an easy-going everyday wine with a very pure expression of the grape. Fruity flavors shine through, giving you softer tannins and lots of freshness. Don’t think you won’t get some of that astringency and dryness though. That is part of the varietal’s nature so be sure to drink with food.
Nebbiolo and Oak Aging
Patience is key for both making and drinking Barolo and Barbaresco. While the requirement for oak aging is a minimum of 9 months for Barbaresco and 18 months for Barolo, there are still many choices a winemaker must make when it comes to oak.
We can say that magical chemical reactions take place in the barrel allowing Nebbiolo to properly evolve.
One of oak’s major roles is to impart tannins and add to the complex flavors of the wine. Nebbiolo already has its own tannic structure coming from the seeds and the skins but still greatly benefits from the oak by fixating its color and adding layers of complexity.
At the same time those tannins need to smooth out through micro-oxygenation over time. In turn, the oak allows the wine to breathe microscopically through the pores (an oxidative effect) and helps round out those very same tannins.
Each winemaker has to find the right balance and signature style considering these variables.
American Oak, Quercus Alba
New world wines prevalently use a lot of American oak which is cheaper, denser (often sawed instead of hand-split) and gives stronger sweeter flavors to the wine often described as vanilla, coconut, sweet spices and dill.
I have never come across any winemaker who uses American oak for aging Barolo or Barbaresco because this would be too overwhelming.
French Oak, Quercus Petraea
Used all over the world for some of the finest wines. Compared to American oak, French is tighter grained and imparts fine tannins and more subtle spicy flavors with a satin or silky texture.
The benefit of using French oak on Nebbiolo can be to soften those sometimes harsh tannins and add pleasant flavors in a shorter period of time. The color will be deeper and with the higher exchange of oxygen, it softens the tannins quicker.
The color and readiness of Barolo had always been a problem in the past. But the winemaker must master the right balance of natural fruit character and expression of terroir with the oak.
Slavonian Oak, Quercus Robur
Tightly grained but more neutral than French oak which is often made into bigger barrels. This slows micro-oxygenation for a gentle aeration and therefore requires more time and patience. It gives structure and allows for long bottle aging potential.
The benefit of using this kind of oak with aging Nebbiolo for Roero, Barbaresco and Barolo is that it respects the character of the fruit and the terroir, giving each wine its own unique identity.
The wood grain determines the amount and rate of wood tannins extracted into the wine and ranges from tight to wide-grained. A tight grain is more prized because of the softer taste imparted in the wine with possibly a higher level of olfactory characteristics as found in French oak.
Tighter grained woods normally come from older trees which grow slowly and accumulate more flavors. This contributes to more tannin and flavor components.
Medium and coarse-grained oak like American oak results in stronger flavors of vanilla and oak which can sometimes be more agressive.
High quality oak is normally attributed to tight-grained woods. Barolo, Barbaresco and Roero wines, being noble wines require the best and tend to carry on Old World traditions!
In Piemonte, we relate French oak to “barriques” 225 liter barrels and Slavonian oak to the traditional larger sized “botti” 1,500-10,000 liter barrels.
The hyped up battle amongst Piemontese traditionalist vs. modernist winemakers was largely based around what type of barrels were used to age Barolo and Barbaresco (if you want to know more read this).
This was just one of the many “new” winemaking practices that were introduced to the area more than two decades ago but is somewhat passè to talk about now.
This was considered more “modern” as it mimicked the French winemaking style. Winemakers who employ this aging technique believe that the smaller barrels, with larger surface area to wine ratio and thinner walls allow for softer wines, pleasant flavors, and quicker microoxygenation.
Barolo, Barbaresco and Roero aged in barriques are often lusher, softer and more approachable sooner in the market. The toast level also influences the “oaky” characteristics found in the wines as well.
The so-called traditional style of aging wines occurs in large Slavonian oak barrels which are naturally dried rather than toasted which makes them a neutral style wood.
The thick walls, and fine-grained oak make for a longer aeration time in the barrel, adding complexity while preserving fruit flavors and giving you a long living wine.
Barolos may be aged up to 3 or 4 years in botti because of its slower evolution.
Age of Barrels
Barrel size is very important but even more-so could be the age of the barrel. Brand new oak will release very intense flavors into the wine while a barrique which has been used for 4 or 5 vintages may be practically neutral.
Oftentimes, producers opt for using brand new oak barrels for aging another wine like Barbera first. Because of its high acidity, it is balanced out well by the structure and flavors coming from the new oak.
After this first seasoning, the barriques or botti may be used for more noble wines like Barolo and Barbaresco so as not to mask the already beautiful flavors of Nebbiolo.
Normally barriques are used for a maximum of 3-5 vintages otherwise they are not benefitting the wine any longer. Botti are usually used for 25 years or even longer.
Hygiene and wall thickness may become an issue in time since they are harder to clean and require scraping the inside walls of the barrels.
Most producers in Langhe are now using moderate techniques and combining oak styles to come up with a balanced and high quality wine. It is amazing to think how this is just one small (yet very important) factor of winemaking and underlines why each wine has its own style and personality.