Using Barrels in Winemaking

Winemakers create barrel aging programs or formulas to create a wine with the perfect amount of oak influence. The amount of oak flavor and the time a wine spends in barrel is somewhat of a balancing act.  For example, a Cabernet Sauvignon will stay in barrel for 18 months, but only 1/3 of the barrels will be new. This results in a mature wine with the optimal amount of oak flavor.

Oak barrels are expensive, and a new French oak vessel will run you about $1000 dollars a pop on average. American barrels will be about $400. What’s the difference, you ask? Ya gotta pay for that French finesse. American oak is notorious for big, powerful flavors that in unskilled hands can result in awkward flavor profiles and the infamous 'wood shed' effect.  French oak is pricey yet delivers subtleties that integrate more harmoniously with the wine.  However, when done right, wine aged in either barrel variety can result in a balanced and enjoyable wine.

A large scale barrel aging program from a large winery in Washington State. Thatsa'lotta barrels!

A large scale barrel aging program from a large winery in Washington State. Thatsa'lotta barrels!

With wine, there is no greater learning tool than tasting. On your next trip to the local wine shop, ask the sommelier for a wine with little oak influence and for one with big powerful oak flavors to see which style you prefer.  Then educate him on how much you know about wine barrels from reading this blog! 

Cheers :)


Winemaking Wednesday - The Science and Magic of Barrels - Pt. 2

In part 2 of our 3 part series about barrels, Grant explains a bit about the science behind an oak barrel...

Barrel Production and Science

A row of 'barriques'.  More wood contact = more oak flavor.

A row of 'barriques'.  More wood contact = more oak flavor.

Each barrel is shaped, fitted, and toasted by hand over an open flame by an artisan called a ‘cooper’. The result is a liquid tight, savory masterpiece. Since oak wood is porous and breathable, the barrel is not actually ‘air tight’. As a wine ages in barrel, it is exposed to tiny amounts of oxygen that soften the harsh, astringent characteristics of the wine. Over time, tannins mellow and the sharp freshness of young wine eases into a richer, more focused fruit character of a more mature wine.

Barrel aged chardonnay is a perfect example. Chardonnay shows flavors of crisp green apple before barrel aging commences.  After a year in barrel, the wine becomes more like an opulent baked apple pie with cinnamon spice and a decadent creaminess due to malolactic fermentation that takes place in the barrel.  Dark, angular reds also benefit from even more time in the barrel to smooth out their rugged edges and soften the mouth feel of the wine.

In these giant oak vessels in Rioja, Spain, the wine has less contact with the wood, but still matures nicely due to the 'breathability' of oak.

In these giant oak vessels in Rioja, Spain, the wine has less contact with the wood, but still matures nicely due to the 'breathability' of oak.

If a wine is aged too long it is susceptible to oxidation, which in small doses is good and desirable (depending on the style you’re going for), but in large doses is considered a flaw in winemaking.  When picturing over-oxidation, just think about a wine that’s been left uncorked for a week.  Not ideal.  Another danger in the barrel comes from the bacteria acetobacter bacteria, which often present in winemaking, but in large amounts can transform wonderful wines into less wonderful vinegar (or very expensive salad dressing).  

Wines in barrel must continually be monitored and “topped,” or refilled, every month to minimize the head-space in the barrel, reduce risk of oxidation, and to keep acetobacter in check. Minimal amounts of SO2 (or sulfites) are often used to reduce the rate of oxidation and keep wines free of microbial spoilage. 

Next week, we’ll get into a bit more about how winemakers use barrels and develop barrel programs that improve their wines (i.e. the delicious part of the process).  Stay tuned!

- Grant


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.