Did you know that the wood used to make an oak barrel can be up to 120 years old? And that some barrels cost up to $2,000 a piece?
It's hardly surprising that the use of oak barrels can significantly add to the cost of wine production. Good job that a standard barrel can hold 300 bottles worth of wine.
The use of oak is a very common winemaker's technique and can be traced back to Roman times (no surprises there then). Although originally used simply for storage, oak barrels are now used for three main reasons;
1) They allow a small amount of oxygen into the wine which helps soften tannins
2) They can impart flavours into a wine, and also colour for white wine
3) They can add tannin, and therefore structure, to a wine
The most common types of oak used for barrels are French, Hungarian and American. Each type imparts a slightly different flavour with French adding nutty and toasty tones, American adding sweet and buttery notes and Hungarian adding some spice. French barrels are the most expensive and American the cheapest. Have they tried using other oaks? I'm sure they have but the fineness of the grain means that only a select few offer the perfect balance of letting a tiny bit of oxygen in but no wine out.
Unfortunately there are alternatives if a winemaker doesn't want to splash out on an expensive barrel but does want an oaky taste. Oak flavour can be added to a wine with wood staves, wood chips and even oak powder. Check the label to see if the winemaker mentions an actual barrel!
And let's finish on a common quiz question - who makes these oaks barrels by hand? A Cooper of course.