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Wine Barrels


.The use of wine barrels (especially oak barrels) to store and age wine is a centuries old tradition (and solution). Wine aged in oak barrels is enhanced with the addition of vanilla and oak overtones. Wooden Wine Barrels also allow for a small amount of evaporation of the contents during the aging period.

wine barrels at Chateau Canon
Wine Barrels in the Chai at Chateau Canon

French Oak was considered especially desirable wood for making wine barrels for many years. Most French Oak comes from one or more of the forests that were planted in the days of Napoleon for shipbuilding. Since the days of sailing ships have come and gone, those French forests have become ongoing forestry operations. Five primary forests used for wine barrel production are Allier, Limousin, Nevers, Trancais and Vosges. Each of these forests produces wood with distinctive characteristics involving tightness of the wood grain as well as the amount of oak flavors that are imparted to the wine. Tight grained wood tends to impart the Oak characteristics (vanilla, spice and butter flavors) much more slowly than wood with looser grain. Winemakers select wood for their wine barrels from different forests for the effect on the finished wine.

Early experiments with American Oak (and that of many other countries) were not very successful since the amount of influence that the barrel had on the taste of the wine was too great. At first it was thought that the problem was with the wood itself. Now we know that most of the difficulties were caused by the way the wood was prepared and the way the barrel was constructed. As coopers began using traditional French barrelmaking techniques on 'foreign' oak, the results improved dramatically.

Light Toast on Wine Barrles
L T is for Light Toast

Perhaps the two most significant differences in wood preparation and barrel construction techniques were the seasoning of the wood and the way the staves were prepared. The French Coopers always let the wood air-dry for at least 24 months to attain proper seasoning. The American barrel makers were more used to building whiskey barrels and used a kiln-dry method to season the wood. The staves for whiskey barrels were also sawn rather than split. The French barrel makers split the wood along the grain of the wood to make the staves. Splitting rather than sawing produced staves (and ultimately barrels) that had more subtle effects on the wine.

Once the French barrel building techniques were applied to Oak from other countries, the results improved substantially. It is now common to find American Oak as well as that of several other countries including Hungary in the construction of wine barrels. Barrels made from American Oak typically cost less than half the price of French Oak Barrels and are now capable of achieving similar results.

wine barrels in racks

During the construction of the barrel, a step takes place where the partially assembled barrel is placed over a small wood fire. During this step, the inside of the barrel is charred or 'toasted'. The amount (depth) of char in the barrel has an effect on the wine that is aged in it. Winemakers can normally order their barrels with Light Toast, Medium Toast or Heavy Toast. The 'toast' decision will be made based on the grape variety to be used in the barrel as well as the style of wine to be produced.

There are a wide variety of additional options available to the winemaker when it comes to wine barrels. Many winemaking regions have traditional shapes (i.e. - Bordeaux Barrels vs. Burgundy Barrels). There are also many sizes of barrels as well as variations in the thickness of the staves and the way the barrels are finally constructed.

It is most common for wines to be fermented in temperature-controlled Stainless Steel tanks before they are placed in oak barrels for aging. Some grape varieties, such as Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, may be fermented and aged in the same Oak barrel. Since new barrels impart more flavors to the wine than previously used barrels, the percentage of new barrels used by a winery each year is an important piece of information. By the time a barrel is about 5 years old, it is virtually neutral as far as its influence on the taste of the wine.

Various techniques have been developed to extend the use of barrels or to gain the benefits of oak aging without actually going to the time or expense of the traditional methods. One method involves shaving the inside of used barrels and inserting new thin inner staves that are toasted. Another procedure is to use oak shavings in a large 'tea bag' that is placed inside stainless steel tanks of wine. None of these cost saving techniques has been able to achieve the results of traditional barrel aging.