All about Wooden Barrels: How They Enhance Wine

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Even if you don’t drink wine, you’ll be aware of a relationship between wooden barrels and wine. Is it me or does it seem that every home design magazine and antique shop, recently is featuring wine barrels. You’ll have seen these repurposed into tables, outdoor bars, and other pieces.

However, the barrel played a critical role in the winemaking process before it was relegated to garden furniture and flowerpots. So there’s a lot more to the simple wooden barrel than you might think.

In this post I will address why the wooden barrel is important in wine making? What are its advantages? Are there different kinds of barrels? And why are they different?

The Evolvement of Wooden Barrels

As described in the Old Testament, the first wines were made in earthen jars and stored in skins. For storing larger quantities of wine or transporting wine long distances, they were inefficient. And as you can imagine, prone to rotting.

In Georgia, Eastern Europe, an alternative method of storage was invented. The pottery vessel was called a called a qvevri. These were a funny shape and too fragile to travel easily. Next, came the amphora which were invented by the Egyptians and their usage spread across the Mediterranean region.

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Image by Ilona Metscher from Pixabay

But it wasn’t until the Roman empire had expanded to reach Gaul (France), that wooden barrels, began to be used for transporting wine.

Oak quickly became the wood of choice for the new barrels. The wood was both light, and easier to transport. It was also a cheap, abundant European wood with a tight grain, making for a waterproof barrel. Luckily, it was also easily shaped by coopers and sturdy enough to hold many litres of wine.

The barrel is traditionally referred to as a keg when empty and cask when full. However, I’m just going to refer to barrels to make it easier.

Why Do We Still Use Wooden Barrels?

Initially, the most significant advantages of wooden barrels were, first, their strength. Second, the barrels themselves were like wheels and could be easily rolled from one place to another. Third, it became evident that certain goods – like wine – actually benefited from being stored in wood.

This third advantage in fact is the only current reason for continued barrel storage. That is because nowadays stainless steel and nonreactive synthetic materials outweigh all other advantages that barrels ever possessed.

Before it can be bottled, newly made wine goes through a period of maturation. This is a process during which it undergoes several character and sensory changes. It can take anywhere from several months to a year or longer, depending on the type of wine.

So, what does an oak barrel impart to wine that improves and enhances it?

First, for red wines, a very gradual oxidation (air gets in through the bong/stopper) results in decreased astringency and increased colour and stability. It also evolves the fruit aromas to more complex ones.

Second, oak wood is composed of several classes of complex chemical compounds. Each of these contributes its own flavour or textural note to both red and white wines. The most familiar of these are vanilla flavours, sweet and toasty aromas.

It may also impart notes of tea and tobacco. Plus it has an overall structural complexity of tannin that mingles with the tannin from the fruit itself (red wines).

It could be argued that the barrel aging process with wines is an art as much as it is a science.

It could be argued that the barrel aging process with wines is an art as much as it is a science. #greenacresirl #woodenbarrels Click To Tweet

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Does the Type of Wood Matter?

The type of wood used in wine barrels, can have as much effect on flavour as variables like soil and climate. It may be sourced from different regions to help create the desired profiles; French and American oak are the most popular with lesser amounts coming from Eastern Europe.

You may have read my references to American and European (French) Oak, in some of my previous posts. Well, there is a difference.

The major distinguishable physical difference between the wine oak species is its density. European oak tends to be more dense (closer spaced rings) which has been suggested to impart lessor oak lactones and oxygen than American oak.

Generally speaking, American oak is ideal for bolder, more structured wines e.g Cabernet Sauvignon. can handle American oak’s robust flavours and oxygen penetration. European oak on the other hand, is ideal for lighter wines (such as Pinot Noir or Chardonnay) that require more subtlety.

American oak lends notes of vanilla, coconut, and toffee, while the French variety can deliver notes of clove, spice and nutty flavours. The size and age of the barrel also matters, with smaller, brand-new ones most effectively imparting their oak flavour into the wine.

After a few years of use, the new oak barrel itself becomes “neutral,” and no longer imparts flavour or tannin to the wine. Once the wooden barrel has lived its full lifespan in the winery, the creative wine enthusiast can repurpose a used wine barrel into a table top, a bar stool, or a wine barrel planter, as mentioned in my first paragraph.

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Image by efes from Pixabay

What About Other Aging Vessels?

Steel Barrel – Steel barrels are a type of barrel made from stainless steel used to age wine. The steel imparts no flavour to the wine: it merely holds the wine for a few months. During this time the wine stabilises, and the flavours integrate.

Steel barrels don’t let any oxygen come into contact with the wine. This kind of aging helps wines retain the fresh fruit aromas that degrade with exposure to oxygen. Steel barrels are more popular for white wines, which, unlike reds, do not have tannins to manage.

Aromatic and semi-aromatic white grapes such as Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Albariño and Gruner Veltliner, usually use steel barrels.

For red wines, stainless steel is a good choice for lower tannin, fruity grapes like, Gamay, Grenache and Cabernet Franc. Red wines aged in stainless steel are straightforward and juicy, with no oak flavours.

One last thing, Stainless steel aging is significantly less expensive than using oak because unlike oak barrels, steel barrels can be reused indefinitely and are much easier to clean.

Concrete Tanks – as a material, concrete has some of the porosity of oak, enabling the slow, tannin-developing penetration of oxygen that stainless steel can’t deliver. The egg-shaped vessel encourages convection currents during fermentation, while its superior insulation maintains consistent temperature during fermentation.

Concrete tanks are very expensive to install which is probably why their use is not so widespread. However, it must be said that while it imparts no flavour of its own, the way wine behaves inside the concrete egg stamps the finished product with a distinctive style.

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Image by chris18769 from Pixabay

How Many Bottles of Wine Come from a Barrel?

Before I answer this, I’d like to mention a great article I read recently. It is from the Fine + Rare online portal, titled FINDING THE BALANCE: THE ART OF THE COOPER, which goes into depth about the art of barrel making. If you get a chance have a read.

And the answer to the question? It depends on the barrel size. If you break it down, each bottle of wine is 750 ml (or 1/5 of a gallon), so for each gallon of wine you have, you will be producing five bottles. If you have a 30-gallon barrel it will hold 150 bottles worth of wine.

I’ll finish with a quote I heard many years ago (unfortunately I can’t remember from where), which I ‘ve always liked: “Barrel aging can be likened to sending the wine to finishing school. It enters the barrel young and rowdy, and graduates refined and polished.”

If you would like to talk to any of the wine team here in Green Acres about storing your wine, pop-in, call us, browse online or email me at james@greenacres.ie.

#maskingforafriend – Talk Soon – James.

christmas wine bottle and glass