Saturday, April 5, 2008

An introduction to wine barrels

This style of barrel is called a barrique.  It holds enough wine to make about 25 cases of wine. (c)2008 SmellsLikeGrape.Most people take for granted that wine is fermented in oak barrels. Many woods can be used to make a container. Oak has some rather unique properties that make it the wood of choice for wine. If you are going to store your livelihood in a container, the container must hold the wine, preserve the wine and not impart bad tastes to the wine. From a manufacturing standpoint, the wood must be able to be fashioned into a container, not leak, be readily available, economical and have repeatable results.

Looking at other woods, you can make containers out of beech, pine, spruce, poplar, redwood or even willow. Most of these woods will impart a taste that is bitter, too aromatic or even a smell like turpentine. Maple would be a good choice, but for anyone out there that has worked with maple knows that it is a dang hard wood that doesn’t form well.

Oak has been used for cooperage for a reason. It is easy to form into staves, it splits well and has a tight enough grain to hold the product. Oak has some flavorful oils that impart a pleasant vanilla characteristic that is complimentary to wine. It also helps with tannin structure. This is why we have a long tradition of storing wine in oak barrels. They are rugged (much harder to break than fired clay jars) and they give a level of insurance that the product will arrive in one piece (literally).

Wine makers have a choice of cooperage. There are many species of oak used to make wine barrels. In America, (and I’m not going to bore you further with Latin names) we have American White Oak. This oak will impart a stronger, more pungent wood characteristic to the wine. In Europe we find Brown Oaks. These are more tight-grained, have finer tannins and a lighter vanillin make up.

Barriques like those shown below are used for high end wine. They are expensive. An American barrique costs about $450 and a French oak barrel can go for around $850.
A mixture of barrels at custome crush winery shows different barrels.  Some are French oak, some American and some are a mixture of both. (c)2008 SmellsLikeGrape.

Another choice the wine maker has it is the degree of toast the barrel has. Wine barrels are intentionally charred, scorching the surface of the oak changes the aromatic oils and cellulose on the surface to complex compounds. This can impart pleasing characteristics to the wine if done correctly.

The age of the barrel will have an effect on the wine. New barrels will have the largest effect, imparting strong flavors. Used barrels will allow the wine to age with gentler affects. Some wineries will age part of the vintage in new oak, some in old oak and make a blend to get the most balanced composition. Likewise, a wine maker may decide to make part of the vintage in French oak and part in American oak. There are all sorts of stylistic decisions to make.

A final decision is the size of the barrel. The smaller the barrel, the larger the surface area to wine ratio. This means more surface contact for the wine and a greater influence the oak will have.

Oak has become so popular that there are products for wine makers to impart oak characteristics to wine without using expensive barrels. Yes, there are wood chips, staves and “shelves” that can be used to manipulate the wine. These products are often added to stainless steel fermentation tanks to help add structure.

Volume producers have been using oak chips since the early 1960s. The oak chip has been a covert fact. These chips are available in different toast levels and can even be used in old barrels to produce that new barrel taste.

This is all important to wine appreciation because you will have oak preferences. My suggestion is that you set up a horizontal flight of wines to tastes the differences. You can talk with your wine shop proprietor to help you select some wines with different oak influences.

The Tonnellerie Quintessence site has an excellent video that shows the barrel making process from forest through shipping. It includes interviews with wine makers.

Another good learning resource is this page from T. W. that gives a list of barrels and toast levels and the influence intended on the wine.

With all this knowledge, you will know more about the wines you have a preference for. I hope it has been of value to you.


john witherspoon said...

Hey Tasters,
very nice post and cool video link up. I did a 3 part series on oak barrels a while back (last year I think). Check it out if you get a sec. It covered a lot of what you did, but had a couple of different tid bits.


Taster A said...

There is a lot to learn about barrels and the affects of oak on wine. Between John's post and this introduction, you'll have a great appreciation for what is out there. I encourage you to check out Anything Wine to learn some more.

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