How can the forest that the oak is sourced from influence wine quality? Oak maturation is an important part of pinot noir wine making. It is a traditional technique that allows important chemical processes to occur resulting in flavour and aroma development as well as texture or body in the wine. Wine makers choose the type of oak barrels to use and part of the selection process may involve deciding on barrels made from oak sourced from different forests! So how do wine makers decide which forests are best? The short answer is experience and trial and error. Oak used in wine barrels comes from many different forests in USA, France, Russia and a number of eastern European countries but for serious pinot noir producers the forests of France represent the only ones to use.
In France, the main forests are the north-eastern forest of Vosges and the central forests of Allier, Never and Troncais. While oak from all these forests are used in fine wine production, Allier and Tronçais are the ones most commonly used for producing pinot noir. Tronçais forest oak trees grows to great height and the growing conditions produce an extremely tight grain. The use of tight grained oak barrels results in subtle oak flavors and mean that Tronçais oak barrels are well suited for extended barrel ageing. The tighter the grain the slower the oak releases its tannins or flavours but also it breaths slower or always oxygen to enter the wine. These factor effect the quality and characteristics of the wine.
Many oak barrel manufacturers are now producing ‘generic’ pinot noir barrels from oak sourced from multiple forests or market their barrels with grain options such as Medium Open, Medium, Medium Tight, Tight or Very Tight. This is masking where the oak is sourced from and is designed to simplify the ordering process for the wine maker.
There are other facts important in selecting barrels such as the manufacturer, manufacturing process and toasting. These will be discussed in future posts.