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What is Barrel Aging in Wine Making?
Barrel aging is a process of aging wine in small, medium, or large-sized bottles after fermentation and before bottling.
History of Oak Barrels
Wine drinking has been documented by archaeologists and immortalized in artwork. We know that ancient civilizations stored their wine in ceramic barrels and pitchers and later in woodEN casks, which were lighter and easier to transport, and didn’t shatter as easily.
While there was certainly a practical explanation for these practices, over time winemakers realized that aging and storage could affect the aroma, flavor and texture of the wine. And not only. Barrel aging plays an important role in the production of beer and spirits like cognac, tequila, and whiskey as well.
How Long Do Wines Age in Barrels?
Wines rest in wooden casks for as little as a few months to many years. It all depends on what style of wine the winemaker is trying to produce.
The French term élevage translates to “raising” or “elevating.” It applies as much to raising a child, as it does to elevating the unique qualities and expression of a wine. It encompasses everything that happen after fermentation and before bottling, including fining, filtering and very often, some form of barrel aging.
Why do Winemakers Use Barrel Aging?
- Barrel aging allows for micro-oxidation. Wood is more porous than stainless steel. Micro-oxidation helps mellow out harsher elements of wine, like tannin and acidity through chemical changes due to exposure to oxygen. A great example of this is malolactic fermentation, which transforms malic acid into lactic acid. The effect is a creamier buttery quality that you in barrel fermented and aged Chardonnays
- Micro-oxidation enables wine aromas to mature, evolve, and develop over time.
- Barrel aging adds distinctive aromas and textural elements to wine. Just like grapes, wood contains aromatic compounds like lactones (which smell creamy), Vanillin, Eugenol, and Isoeugenol which smell like vanilla, spices and cloves respectively.
- Wood also contributes tannic structure. Just like the seeds, stems, and skins of grapes, wood contains naturally occurring polyphenolic molecules, or tannoids, that create a pulling, drying sensation. Tannins not only act as a natural preservative, they contribute to the body, structure, and balance of the wine and are an important part of wine and food pairing.
How Are Oak Barrels Made?
Barrels are made from strips, or staves, of wood that are stretched and held together with metal hoops. They are toasted to light, medium, or dark, which also affects the flavors they impart. Just like coffee.
Lightly toasted new oak barrels impart sweeter brighter notes like caramel and vanilla, whereas older and darker toasted oak can impart notes of tobacco, chocolate, leather, and coffee.
What Kind of Wood are Barrels Made of?
Most wine barrels are made of oak. The majority of oak for barrels comes from the United States, Hungary, Slovenia, and France.
While oak is by far the most common, barrels can be made from all types of wood, including chestnut and acacia. For example in Sicily, Etna producers Barone di Villagrande make barrels from chestnut trees growing on their property.
Different Oaks for Different Folks
The origin of the oak is less influential than the age, the toast, and the size, not to mention how long the wine was in contact with the oak.
That said, new American oak barrels generally impart sweeter, qualities on the wine as well as notes of coconut and dill.
French oak is considered the “gold standard” for wine barrels as it has a finer grain and imparts more subtle influence on the flavor profile of the wine, while contributing tannic structure.
New oak in general has larger quantities of resin, or sap inside. That’s where so much of that pine-y, sweet spice comes from.
As oak ages and dries out, the aromas become more subtle. Try an experiment. Pick up a dead stick from the ground and rip one off of a tree (sorry tree). Crack them both in half and see if you notice the difference.
Does Size Matter?
It sure does! In barrel aging. Smaller barrels translate to more wood contact and less surface area to cover, whereas large barrels have less contact with the wine. And thus, smaller barrels have a greater influence on the aroma, flavor and texture. Larger barrels, especially older ones (second or third passage) work more to oxidize and relax wines and soften tannins.
Different Sized Oak Barrels for Wine
Wooden barrels come in a variety of shapes and sizes.
Also known as Bordeaux Barrels, these hold 225 Liters. Not to be confused with the more generic term, ‘barrels’ or ‘casks.’
Also known as Pièce, they’re slightly rounder than barriques and hold 228 liters.
Puncheons or Hogshead
They are made in the USA hold 300 liters.
Tonneau, Barrels, Casks, or Botti
There are more Generic terms to describe the same thing. They are defined and distinguished by individual qualifiers like size, wood type and toast.
This is Italian for ‘large barrels’.’ They can hold up to 1000 liters or more. These are used often in the production of wines like Barolo and Brunello di Montalcino that age for years before they are bottled and released.
How Does Barrel Aging Affect the Aromas and Flavors of Wine?
The effect of barrel aging has to do with several factors:
- The age of the barrels (new or used, AKA, first, second, and third-passage.
- The toast of the barrels (light, medium or dark)
- The size of the barrels (small, medium, or large)
Oak influence imparts a host of aromas known collectively as baking spices. This includes cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and allspice for example. Other notes of new oak include: Vanilla, Coconut, Cocoa, Dark Chocolate, Wood Chips, Dill, Smoke, Tobacco, Coffee, Leather