Oct 07 2011
Is there anything more sexy and fast-paced than the world of barrels? Probably.
Barrels might not be the most exciting part of wine-making, but they play a vital role in many wines the world over. Over 3,000 years ago, Egyptians would store wine in ceramic pots called “amphora” that they would then pour olive oil over the tops of to act as a natural sealant. Wood barrels did not become the status quo for wine storage until quite some time afterwords with, like many things, the Romans spear-heading the process.
So why a barrel? Well, they have always been ideal for storage, in that the shape and design of them allow for liquid-tight sealing, without the use of glues or other impurities (though some Greek wines were, and still are made in barrels sealed with pine tar). Skilled coopers (Yes, that is what “cooper” means- barrel maker) cut and bend the wood panels so that they interlock when arranged in the classic barrel shape; simple and genius. When on the move, nothing makes a more practical storage device than something you can roll off of a ship, wagon, etc. So, being the storage vessel of choice for all things liquid or powder, it was only a matter of time before they began to be used for the purpose of wine fermentation and storage. Well, sometimes these wines would be stored for so long, that by the time they were opened, the oak had delivered a wine very different than the one that went in.
But how exactly does barrel fermenting or aging affect wine? For starters, the toasted inside of a barrel will deliver flavor notes that the wine does not already possess. Classic examples are toastiness, vanilla, spice, caramel, smoke, mocha and toffee. In addition to these new flavors, oak aging can also act to concentrate the already existing fruit flavors of a wine. Barrels are not 100% airtight, so they allow just enough air to pass through the porous wood to cause slight evaporation of the alcohol and water in the wine, leaving behind a more concentrated wine, full of flavor. The oakiness of a wine can balance the fruitiness of a wine very well, and some grapes (like Cabernet Sauvignon) are naturally very compatible with oak aging. Thus, a perfect marriage of fruit and oak is born.
The minimal oxygen exposure also softens the tannins on otherwise very tannic wines (such as Cabernet, Syrah, Nebbiolo and Petite Sirah). The longer these wines barrel age, the less intense the tannin sensation will be once they are enjoyed. Conversely, white wines that possess relatively no tannin will take a small amount FROM the oak barrels, increasing the wine’s body and ageability.[It's okay to be confused]
Barrels will lose the flavors sought after by winemakers over the duration of aging. The fresher the barrel, the more oak flavor the wine that spends time in that barrel will take with it. The barrel is then left with less flavor to pass onto the next fill of wine, as well as more sediment in the inside of the barrel, making it more difficult for the wine to extract what flavor remains.
Though barrels are made all over Europe and North America, It should come as no surprise that French oak was forever the gold-standard of cooperage, and for many still is. Today, however, American oak is sharing some of that spot light. The two differ enough to make it worth mentioning, so lets examine some of those differences.
French oak barrels are made from either the Common Oak, or White Oak, using a grain-splitting method that allows coopers to use only 25-30% of the trees for barrel-making. These barrels are usually more tannic than American barrels, as well as expensive. American barrels, made of White Oak, usually go for anywhere between 300 and 600 dollars. French barrels, on the other hand, range from $600-$1000 a barrel, depending on the market demand. As wine gains in popularity, and the 80-120 year old oak forests begin to thin, we may see those prices soar over the next twenty years.
But why does it have to be oak? Put simply, centuries of experimentation still find oak to be the best suitor for wine aging. That isn’t to say that one couldn’t use any other wood to age wine -As mentioned above, the Greeks used to use pine barrels that were coated in pine resin to plug leaks for so long that they developed a taste for it. Across the world you might find small productions using non-oak barrels, but oak will always win the all-around as nothing is more air-tight, malleable, porous and flavorful as oak. Good ‘ol oak!
After all of the oak flavor has left with the wine that has spent time in a barrel (usually after two to three uses depending on how many months they have had wine in them) the barrels will be retired from service. There are many fates one of these barrels can have. I have acquired a large, used wine barrel and am considering using it in the following ways: Making a table out of it, training an elephant to balance on it, going over Niagara falls in it, shooting fish in it, and of course filling it with monkeys.
Feel free to offer any other suggestions the next time you’re in the store!