Most of my blogs are about wines, places to drink wine or wineries. Today, a slight departure is in order as we discuss wine barrels.
The function of large containers of wine in its early history was principally for storage and transportation. There was little thought to the utilizing these containers to help age or enhance the flavor of the wine. It didn’t take long, however, for the effects of containers to be noted on the taste of the wine it carried. Early Greek earthenware amphorae were sealed with pine tar, which imparted a distinct flavor to the wine. That flavoring is noted today in Greek Retsina made with a little pine resin added for flavoring.
It’s difficult to fully trace the usage of wooden barrels given wood’s tendency to decay and perish. However some early historians have noted the usage of palm wood barrels for wine in early Mesopotamia. The first mentioned use of oak barrels was noted about 2,000 years ago and they became widely used during the Roman Empire. Given the Roman tendency to compare and transport different grapes for their taste characteristics, it’s probable they also noted the tendency of oak barrels to impart flavors and enhance the flavor and ageing ability of wine and made oak barrels their large wine vessel of choice.
Oak works well for wine barrels because it’s a tightly grained wood. When split along the grain it seals well in holding liquids. There is some breathability in the wood and this allows a small portion of oxygen into the container as evaporation of some of the liquid to the outside (In a standard size 56-gallon wine barrel, the wine may evaporate 3 to 10% of its volume for each year spent in the barrel). This enables the natural tannins in the wine to soften. Additionally, the wine interacts chemically with the wood in producing other tannins as well as flavor compounds. Oak produces some of the most compatible flavors and odors for wine of any wood and that is the principal reason for its popularity and widespread usage.
French Oak, because of its extremely tight grain and characteristics is considered today’s most preferable wood to use for wine barrels, but that was not always so. In fact, early French winemakers much preferred Russian oak. The bulk of the French oak utilized today comes from five major forests. These were initially planted by Napoleon to insure an adequate supply of wood for shipbuilding for the French Navy. Italian winemakers rely heavily on Slovenian oak.
American and recently, Canadian White Oak, are also widely utilized in the world of wine. This oak has a slightly looser grain and Americans had a tendency to saw the wood across the grain in the early stages of American winemaking. That and a common failure to “season” or age the wood before use initially made American made wines aged in American oak almost overpowering in the wood influenced flavors. Adaption of European cooperage methods and careful attention to the importance of either ageing or toasting the wood to achieve proper seasoning has improved the results from using American oak considerably.
An 80 to 100 year old oak tree will typically produce enough wood to create two standard sized barrels. The harvested oak for wine barrel making is typically seasoned at least two years before the barrels are made although charring or toasting the inside of the barrel wood can shorten that process. After a wine barrel is utilized for five to seven years, it typical becomes “neutral” in its ability to impart flavoring to wine. This is often why you see tasting notations that refer to the percentage of “new” or “old” oak utilized to age certain wines. The wine maker is simply adjusting the impact of the wood flavors on his wine.
While it is the most common and most preferable wood for wine barrels, oak is not exclusively used.
Chestnut, pine, acacia and in South America, rauli wood can be found in some winery barrels. Many of these woods, however, can impart much higher tannin levels, shaper and often off-flavors and odors to the wine. It is not uncommon to find that these types of wood barrels are often lined with paraffin to reduce this impact.
Being one whose wine preferences trend toward the well-aged, bold, red wines, The Wine Guy fully appreciates the role of wine barrels in the winemaking process. However, I can also enjoy the wonderfulness of an un-oaked Chardonnay or a Montepulciano that has never seen the inside of an oak barrel. That’s the wonderful part about the world of wine, there’s a new world of flavor to explore in virtually every new glass you enjoy.
Enjoy a good glass of wine, soon! Salute!