What’s Oak Got To Do With It?

So much goes into making a fine wine.  There’s site selection, vine management, harvest decisions, fermenting time, aging time and yeast selection.  Then you have blending, bottling, and release.  There are all the twists and turns mother nature throws at us: frost, rain, smoke, and heat. And then there are the barrels.  To the layperson, a barrel is a barrel is a barrel.

Winemakers like Tony Rynders are not just passionate about barrels, they are experts. For them, proper barrel sourcing and selection is not just a step in the process, it’s a crucial part of the formula for creating a fine wine.

Contrary to popular belief, a barrel is not just a barrel. They come in a variety of sizes, from those big enough to walk into, to the more common 200 – 350 liter aging barrels. And the materials matter too.  Hardwoods, especially oak, are the traditional material for wine barrels, each imparting its unique flavor profile to the wine.

Except for our Rosé of Pinot Noir, Saffron Fields’ wines are all aged in oak barrels with light to medium toast.  Lest you think that Tony is noshing while brewing (which he might be, we don’t fact-check everything here), toast is a term that refers to how long the inside of the barrel is exposed to flame.  It is something like charring your bread, and the heavier the toast, the more flavor the barrel will impart to the wine.  The flavor profiles vary from vanilla and caramel with a light toast to smoke and espresso with a heavy toast.  As an aside, mass-produced wines with price points too low to financially justify barrel aging often introduce outside ingredients, some natural, some not so much, to simulate a barrel-aged profile.  We don’t know if Tony noshes, but he definitely doesn’t do that.

Since nothing in fine wine is ever simple, there are also a myriad of sources for oak barrel staves, some coming from right here in Oregon.  Staves are the wooden slats that make up the barrels.  Staves themselves are carefully aged for several years before being assembled as barrels.  Much of the U.S. production comes from the Midwest.  France is a favored origin in Europe, but barrels are also produced in Spain, Hungary and various other countries.

Tony prefers French oak sourced from several forests (oh, yes, we also have forest variation within countries).  French oak is tighter-grained than American oak, meaning there is less interaction with the wine.  Among other things, French oak has a more even grain, allowing it to be split rather than sawn, as with American oak, another factor that affects the flavor profile of the barrel.  French oak imparts subtler flavors and allows the terroir of the delicate pinot noir grapes to shine.  Reds go into barrels for an average of 18 months with new oak representing 0 – 70% for any selected bottling.  New oak typically imparts more flavor than seasoned or neutral oak.  Still, Tony comments that “The wines always taste less oak-influenced than the new oak percentage would indicate.”  Tony says, “We are actively pursuing that seamless integration of the wines for Saffron Fields.” Overall, the goal is a wine of complexity that still showcases the vintage.

So next time you open a bottle of Saffron Fields wine, put aside your toast and drink a toast to barrel toast, and all the other nuanced aging decisions that make a truly fine wine.  We recommend you start tonight.

By Published On: April 16, 2024Categories: Tastings0 Comments