Wine barrels have been used for thousands of years and continue to be the storage vessel of choice when it comes to aging most wine.So what’s the deal with wine barrels? You’ve probably seen them used as planters, tables in tasting rooms, and stacked impressively high in photographs of winery cellars. From a winemaking standpoint, little has changed about the wine barrel in the last 2,000 years, and there’s little reason to think much will change in the future.
The vast majority of wine barrels used today are made from oak, either French oak or American oak. Other woods have been experimented with, but oak is the clear favorite.
“If you made a barrel out of pine, your wine would taste like pine needles because of the tar,” saidEFESTE Assistant Winemaker Ben Paplow. “Pine is also a softer wood that would risk losing its shape over the years a barrel would need to stand intact. A harder wood could be used, but trees like cherry and apple tend to contribute their own flavor characteristics to the wine that oak manages not to overdo. Oak is classy that way.”
Oak is tough enough to withstand years of use yet gentle on the wine within. The earliest winemakers didn’t know why their wine came out tasting “softer” after barrel aging. Today we do know why, but to spare you the eye-glazing I underwent when researching the science behind what happens as the wine sits in contact with the wood, let me sum it up as such: chemicals in the wine plus chemicals in the oak equal a better tasting wine.
Of course, there are exceptions. Italian red wines have been known to spend time in cherry barrels to get that cherry flavor, for one. Additionally, white wine is made differently than red wine and has fewer tannins. Only the strongest varietals, chardonnay in particular, benefit from being aged in oak. You’ll find the more delicate white wines are aged in stainless steel tanks instead.
The abundance of oak in France can be attributed in part to the forests planted in the 1600s to support the shipbuilding industry. “The trees grow tall and straight, and were highly sought after for masts,” Paplow said. Those forests remain to this day and the best oak for barrels comes from trees that are grown in colder regions (which form tighter rings).
American oak has gained a following over time and the question of French vs. American oak needn’t ruffle any patriotic feathers (did anyone else flash to thoughts of “Freedom oak”?). We’re talking about different species of trees, not just where the trees were grown, and there are winemakers who have found the stronger characteristics of American oak complement their wine well.
Cooperage, or barrel-making, is big business indeed and barrels can range anywhere from $300 to $1,000 each. The time-consuming process that is taking a 100+ year old tree and turning it into a few barrels by hand, one at a time, is a process that remains relatively unchanged since the first barrels were made, and while some winemakers forgo barrels entirely, using oak chips or staves (sticks) added to stainless steel vessels instead, the combination of oak barrels and wine that is meant to be aged is bound to continue.