Rioja and American Oak: A Slightly Fading but Still Solid Alliance
You may be surprised to learn that American oak actually plays a huge role in the production of Rioja wines. This practice actually has a long history dating back to the 1800s. Although it is a longstanding history as the traditional method for Rioja wines, in recent years the tradition has faded a little.
Read more about the history here: A Closer Look at the History of American Oak in Rioja
Apart from the fact that other types of wood like acacia, cherry, and pine, have been used to age wines, when we speak of oak we are referring to a very broad family of species and subspecies. The most important variables when producing an oak barrel are the following: oak growth rate, the seasoning of the wood, how the staves are bent, the level and technology of toasting, and the volume of the barrel.
The other key factor is how the wood affects the fermentation process if it takes place inside the barrel. American oak has characteristics that can help bind to sugars and increase the tannins, which can give more of a sweetness that European oak doesn’t have.
The composition of the oak, as well as the barrel-making process, can also be associated with giving the wine a wide range of aromas and flavors. American oak often translates to notes of coconut, coffee, and vanilla. French oak tends to give a more complex taste and has less effect on the aromas.
If we look at other variables, the washing process to prepare the barrels has an impact. During the washing process, and also from the action of microorganisms such as certain fungi, excessive amounts of water in the oak are reduced to eliminate the compounds that give off very vegetal, astringent, bitter tastes, which come from some of the harder tannins.
The process used to bend the oak also plays a part in the final outcome. The two main methods used are steam and fire. Using steam it extracts tannic compounds which, in turn, softens the flavor. The fire technique does not produce this release of tannins.
Roasting techniques are extremely varied in terms of temperature, fire intensity and proximity to the fire, and time. There is a wide range of roasting techniques that, in general, can be classified as either light, medium, or dark roasts. Depending on the method used you can see several characteristics that it gives the wine, such as a rise in spicy and smoky notes, and powerful aromas of caramel or coffee.
The way the oak is used for the fermentation process is also a very important factor for Rioja wine. Whether the fermentation process takes place in or out of the barrel will affect the aromaticity, bitterness, and complexity of the wine. Compounds in the oak can increase the notes of cloves, spices, oak, and vanilla.
There are so many factors involved when we talk about oak and wine. Generally, American oak is related to sweet aromas like vanilla or coconut while French oak leans more towards spicy and tobacco aromas.
Now that we’ve seen how the type of oak and its production can affect the wine, which one is best? Actually, that’s not a clear answer. Historically as we’ve read before French oak was used but as it became a limited resource Rioja’s winemakers turned to American oak.
This is when they realized that not all oaks are equal and they had quite a few differences. American oak was the go-to for more than a hundred years in Rioja. However, nowadays as the wine market expands and it is more accessible to sample wines from around the world winemakers are getting creative. We see new techniques used in different wineries and now it’s easier to experiment with wine to craft new and exciting flavors.
It’s safe to say that it is a pivotal moment for Spanish wine Rioja. Tradition is still the overwhelming leader and focus across the region but some wineries are looking to break that tradition, or at least stretch it a bit.
However, in order to receive the Rioja “Qualified Certificate of Origin”, strict rules must be followed, which doesn’t allow for as much creativity as some winemakers want. Of course, the culture and practices of winemaking is like a living organism and is always changing. The typical Rioja reds wine will always be around but don’t be surprised to see more modern-style wines in years to come.
Viña Valoria was established in 1860 and, since then, they have continued a classic style of winemaking, upholding the tradition of wine in the Rioja region. The winery has more than one thousand barrels made from American and French oak. Viña Valoria crafts quality wine under the Rioja Qualified Certificate of Origin label and is one of the best-known wineries in the Rioja wine region.
With over 150 years of experience, it offers a variety of delicious Rioja wines, that are the best spanish red wine. If you are looking for a red Rioja, choose between their Crianza, Reserva, Gran Reserva, or even an old vintage, known as a Cosecha Vieja. However, if you prefer to have something different, Viña Valoria’s wites and roseés are perfect for you. No matter the style of wine you prefer, whether it’s sweet, dry or something in between, Viña Valoria has the wine for you!
Not sure where to start? Check out our post: A Beginner’s Guide to Spanish Wine