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Winemaking 101: Why is wine aged in Oak Barrels?

The oak barrel has long been associated with fine wine. It evokes images of strength and sturdiness while emitting rich and complex aromas. Oak barrels can be easily romanticized for their beauty and ability to deliver fine wines with a distinct signature taste. These barrels are so revered by wine aficionados that you can often find them occupying valuable spaces in homes, cabins and offices of those who consider themselves oenophiles.

But why are oak barrels used to create the drink that’s been enjoyed by everyone from Benjamin Franklin to Ernest Hemingway to William Shakespeare? What is it about impressive hunks of wood that make them so important to wine development after the fermentation process?

The answer might surprise you.

Wine makers have been using wine barrels to perfect their craft for centuries. Wine that’s been fermented and racked, even several times, is still raw and has a bitter, un-refined flavor.

Storing wine in barrels promotes the aging process. As the wine rests, it ages and undergoes chemical changes that soften the bitter-edge of the original mixture. The aging process allows subtle flavors to emerge from the depths of the grape essence, which naturally dominates the concoction.

Using oak barrels has been found to facilitate just the right oxidation process, introducing just enough of the life-inducing chemical into the wine to allow for other flavors to emerge — a touch of apple or a hint of honey or butter.

Of course, every glass of wine that's been aged in an oak wine barrel has, somewhere deep inside, the slightest reminder of its origins. A tinge of oak flavor is never a bad thing. In fact, it’s the distinguishing characteristic of fine wines.

The good news for wine lovers is that the lifespan and usefulness of oak wine barrels is relatively short. After a few uses, barrels must be repurposed, while many wind up serving as furniture and art pieces. This is a great testament to the appreciation of fine wine!

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