Winemaking Wedneday - The Science and Magic of Barrels: Pt. 1

For the next three weeks on Winemaker Wednesday, we’re going to learn a bit more about that most mysterious tool of the winemaker’s trade: the oak barrel.

Wineries need LOTS of barrels to make certain styles of wine.

Wineries need LOTS of barrels to make certain styles of wine.

Let’s start out with a little bit of math.  One standard wine barrel holds 60 gallons of liquid. This equates to about 25 cases of wine or... hold on let me do some math.... (25 cases) x (12 bottles/case) x (5 glasses/bottle)

...beep boop beep beep boop...

equals 1,500 glasses of delicious, mouth puckering vino!

Wine barrels are almost always made from oak trees, the finest of which come from several regions within France and the United States.  The barrels have two main purposes in winemaking, besides containing our prized liquid: aging and complexity.  So...why is oak so special, you ask? Not only is the wood extremely dense, tight grained, and sturdy, oak provides flavor compounds that can improve and enhance wines when used correctly.  It’s also known to impart more subtle flavor than other possible woods (like pine or cedar).

This wine tastes…oaky?

Grant stirs one of his aging wines. 

Grant stirs one of his aging wines. 

Wines aged properly in oak barrels take on another dimension of flavors and aromas. These can be as simple as vanilla, caramel, coffee, cedar, chocolate and cinnamon. Or we can get real fancy, lift our chins a bit and start speaking about nuances of redwood bark, worn leather, cigar box, tobacco leaf, and forest floor.

A wine barrel will add flavor character to wines for roughly four or five years. The most dramatic flavor influence will be perceived after the first year the barrel is used, which is why new oak barrels are highly sought after for certain styles of wine.  After the fourth fill, a barrel is considered ‘neutral’ or ‘mature’ and no longer contributes oak flavor. These older barrels can still be used for aging.

Next week, we’ll delve into a bit more about the science of aging in oak barrels.