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    The Role of Oak Barrels in English Wine Ageing: Impact on Taste and Complexity

    English Wine 7th December 2023
    Oak barrels - Lyme Bay Winery

    The mighty oak is much beloved as the national tree of England – representing strength and endurance – and was long used for house and boat-building across the nation because of those very qualities.

    While much less commonly used for those purposes these days, oak is still called into service to make the barrels that are a crucial part of modern winemaking, which will come as no surprise if you’ve ever heard of an ‘oaked wine’.

    Although wine can also be made in stainless steel tanks, there are specific benefits of using oak barrels for wine thanks to the more ‘active’ qualities of the wood. This enables micro-oxygenation to give the wine a smoother taste, as well as releasing compounds that add flavours and aromas such as vanilla and smoke and make for a creamier wine texture. We use oak barrels across a wide range of our wines to help create and accentuate different styles.

    Types of Oak Used in Winemaking

    Two types of oak tend to be chosen by winemakers for oak barrels, and each species provides the wine with different qualities.

    The American white oak – Quercus alba – is suited to creating bolder wines such as Cabernet Sauvignon, whereas barrels made from the European white oak – Quercus petraea – are favoured by winemakers for lighter, more subtle wines such as Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Though here at Lyme Bay, we have one barrel made from English oak – Quercus robur – that has been set aside for a special Winemaker’s Blend.

    Oak Barrel Treatment

    It’s not enough to simply fill up an oak barrel with wine and leave it to work its magic – even before that stage, there’s an art to the barrel-making method itself which affects the flavour profile of the wine that goes into it.

    Oak barrels are made from strips of wood called staves, which have to be softened over a fire in order to bend them into a barrel shape. During this process, the inside of the barrel becomes what winemakers call ‘toasted’, which releases notes of caramel and vanilla from American oak and brings out hints of spice and tannins from European oak.

    What Characteristics Will Oak Give to a Wine?

    Tannins are naturally occurring substances found mainly in plants, for example, in grape skins and seeds as well as oak wood, that give food and drink a ‘dry’ mouthfeel – like when you drink a strong cup of green tea or a glass of red wine.

    Coopers – the craftspeople who make the barrels – are experts in manipulating the levels of toasting and charring during the barrel-making process in order to create different levels of tannins, and there are other chemicals also released by the barrels during the wine ageing process. Some of the most common are vanillin, which gives a vanilla flavour; guaiacol, which creates smoky coffee notes; 4-ethyl guaiacol, for more of a floral, spicy flavour; eugenol, which delivers hints of cloves; and oak lactones, which produce a coconut and woody aroma. We use barrels with a range of different toasting levels to help create the perfect balance in our wines.

    The firing process can also char the inside of the oak barrel, which helps take the edge off any sharper flavours in the wine.

    Ageing Wine in Oak Barrels

    The barrel-ageing process can take anywhere from six months to two-and-a-half years, with white wine having a shorter ageing period than red wine.

    However, it’s not just the age of the wine that winemakers need to keep an eye on. The age of the barrel is also important, as the more the barrel is used, the fewer flavours the oak transfers to the wine, with most winemakers choosing to retire their oak barrels after about five years.

    Since winemakers are very particular about what type of oak barrels they want to create their own wines, it’s no surprise that they are also cautious about how they use and look after them. New barrels are always inspected before use, and barrels that have had wine removed should be cleaned and put back into use again as quickly as possible. Barrel work is fun but hard; you can often see our team at the winery prepping and filling or emptying barrels throughout the year.

    Lyme Bay Winery English Wines Aged in Oak

    Not all wines are made in oak barrels or have oak flavour profiles, but here at Lyme Bay Winery, quite a few of our English wines fit the definition of an oaked wine.

    Our Chardonnay 2021 is an elegant, dry, lightly oaked chardonnay fermented in a mixture of stainless steel and oak at cool temperatures using selected Burgundy yeast strains to enhance complexity, stone fruit, floral characters and minerality. Pale gold in colour, it boasts a classic nose of crisp green apple, citrus and light honeysuckle and a palate of baked apple and vibrant citrus with a creamy finish and just a hint of spice.

    Next up is our Pinot Noir Rosé Reserve 2022. Partially fermented in French oak barriques and then aged for a further eight months, the result is a rich and complex style of rosé with notes of cream, spice and red fruit.

    A classic sparkling wine made in the traditional method, our Blanc de Blancs is another rich and vibrant English sparkling wine made from 100% Chardonnay and aged to create a depth and complexity of flavour. The base wine went through 100% malolactic fermentation with a small proportion, then aged in old oak to allow bâtonnage, resulting in underlying citrus and tropical fruit notes balanced with honey, almond and toasted brioche.

    Our bright cherry red Pinot Noir 2021 is aged in 32% new French oak barrels, as well as older barrels from French, Eastern European and American origins. Aged for 11 months in barrel, the wine was then blended and left to settle several weeks before bottling, creating a nose of vibrant red fruit combined with smoky, vanilla oak and mild tobacco undertones, alongside a palate of cherry, raspberry, and red currant with just a hint of mulberry. A touch of savoury spice and smoke finishes off the rounded palate with a lingering finish.

    Sourced exclusively from Martin’s Lane Estate and Crows Lane Vineyard in Essex from grapes grown in the beautiful, long, hot summer of 2020, all of the English wines in our new and exclusive Single Vineyard range – two Pinot Noirs and a Chardonnay – are aged exclusively in oak barrels.

    Learn More About English Wines

    Intrigued by oaked wine? Delve deeper with our Quick Guide to English Wine.

    Visit our Cellar Door to explore our range of English wines and other award-winning drinks. For orders and enquiries, contact us at [email protected] or call 01297 551355. Remember, we offer free delivery for orders over £55 and a 5% discount on orders over £150.

    Don’t forget to stay in touch with us through our social media accounts: Instagram, X (Twitter) and Facebook.

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