Oaktoberfest: An Ode to Oak

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Oaktoberfest: An Ode to Oak

Sorry Oktoberfest, move over light beer

we decided to celebrate something new this year

Oaktoberfest is our dedication to the mighty oak tree

We know you’re literally screaming with glee

Oak trees grow in forests ‘round the earth

It’s time we appreciate what they’re really worth

They gift us acorns, and pretty leaves in fall,

But the wood from the oak is the best thing of all

French Quercus robur is the best of the best

Who knew this tree could do such wonders, #blessed

They grows in five forests in Central France

Trees so gorg, they’ll put you in a trance

Quercus alba is American Oak through and through

It’s not only great for wine, but bourbon too

The wood is known to be dense, watertight and hard,

Just wait until it gets toasted and charred

Coopers are serious barrel-crafting kings

Cutting staves, shaping wood, oh the joy it brings

The works of art are held together with hoops of metal

These barrels must be perfect, coopers never settle

The inside is toasted - light, medium or heavy

Just wait until you taste an oak-aged bevvy

This is when the flavors really come out

They’ll make your wine smoky and spicy, no doubt

Aging wine any other way just won’t do,

Oak makes the wine soft and dreamy, just for you <3

Slow clap for the oak tree, ya’ll. That’s right, Oak is what gives wines that extra oomph that new wine drinkers love to hate and experienced winos must-have. People were smart enough centuries ago to realize that storing wine in animal bladders and clay pots just wasn’t going to cut it. As humans began to move about the earth, they needed a better way to transport their precious vino. Given the astounding number of Oak trees that grew in Europe at the time, the oak barrel became the solution. (Well, first it was wooden buckets, but then they got smart and put a lid on them to make a barrel).

WHY OAK BARRELS? Strength! Especially when made from French Oak (Quercus robur) or American Oak (Quercus alba) and held together with metal hoops. The ideal oak, Quercus robur is kind of a big deal. It can be found in five prized forests in Central and Eastern France: Troncais, Vosges, Nevers, Alliers and Limousin. Also important and closer to home, is American oak, a.k.a. Quercus alba.

Although we don’t have super fancy names for our forests, it grows in the enchanted midwestern lands of Wisconsin (Go Pack), Minnesota, Iowa and Missouri. Just like growing grapes, climate is key for growing oak trees. In a cool and dry climate, trees will grow slowly and majestically, producing wood with a tighter grain. In a warmer and wetter climate, oak trees will grow faster and have a looser grain. The grain of the wood that’s used to create the barrel can change the flavor profile of the wine that’s stored inside of it. Tighter grain is ideal for integrating with the wine. Ideally a tree is 100+ years old when it gets chopped down harvested for barrel-making. But the older, the better. Some trees being harvested today are up to 250 years old!

At that time, many oak forests in France were planted for building French navy ships (thanks Napoleon). 250 years ago, America was barely even a country! 250 years ago, people wore powdered wigs and thought they looked so chic. Easy to move! Barrels could be easily rolled to wherever wine was needed. Helllllooo, wine emergency over here, need wine stat. Roll that baby over! The two main types of barrels are Bordeaux (barrique) or Burgundy (piéce). They differ just slightly in shape and size. About 2-4 barrels can be made from one tree. Let’s roll out the barrel, step-by-step:

  1. Staves, or narrow strips of wood, are created out of the tree trunk. Traditionally, coopers would hand split each stave. Some coopers still practice this today.
  2. The staves need to dry, which typically takes 3-5 years. Not days, years! The staves just sit outside all stacked up, year after year. Getting exposure to the elements helps to leach out tannins from the wood. Kiln-drying is an option for faster results, but good things come to those who wait. If you catch my drift. The oak just won’t be as quality as that open air drying.
  3. Hangin’ with Mr. Cooper (I’ve been waiting to use that one) is no easy task. The dried staves must be precisely cut, shaped and arranged around a metal hoop. They have to fit together like that heart BFF necklace you and your bestie had in middle school. You each had half of the heart and you were thick as thieves. But like, you don’t even know where that BFF is anymore, so whatever. Bad analogy. Anyway, an imperfect seal could mean a leaky barrel.
  4. To help bend the staves into shape we have: fire! The heat helps make the staves pliable as the coopers hammer metal hoops into place for support. We now have ourselves a barrel, ladies and gents.
  5. Toasting is what really brings out the flavor. The inside of the barrel gets toasted just like a marshmallow over a campfire. There are different toasting levels - light, medium or heavy - which caramelizes the wood.
  6. Lastly, our barrel needs sanding so the outside looks pretty. Then comes the top. The barrel goes through testing to ensure it’s leak-proof. Barrels don’t come cheap. A brand new French barrel will set you back at least $700 bucks, probably more.

Perfectly porous! This type of wood is able to ~breathe.~ Oak is porous, allowing water and alcohol to evaporate through the wood barrel as it ages. One barrel will hold about 60 gallons of wine. As the wine ages, about 5 gallons (30 bottles of wine) will evaporate from the barrel. This is affectionately known as the “angel’s share.” Cute. While the fat cherubs are sipping on wine, oxygen is seeping into the barrel. This helps soften the wine as it ages. No doubt, people tried to make barrels with other woods - pine, cherry, walnut, birch - you name it. But none of them are able to breathe, hold wine without seepage, and pass nice flavors along to the wine like oak can. Which leads me to my next point...

Wine benefits! Over time, people realized that wines actually benefited from being stored in that delicious wood. Ultimately, it’s the winemakers decision on which Oak type will best benefit the wine. One isn’t necessarily better than the other. Some winemakers will even use both types on one wine! Each type of Oak imparts different yet wonderful characteristics unto a wine:

French Oak American Oak
Less heavy Less dense More porous, allows for more oxidation Subtle flavors Baking spices More tannin imparted into wine More heavy More dense Less porous Stronger flavors Vanilla, coconut, toasty Less tannin imparted into wine
And there you have it. You now know more than you ever wished to know about one particular tree. Go drink some oaky wines! Happy Oaktoberfest! Sources: Wine Spectator, U.S. Forest Service, Iowa State University
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