Now is the time of year when winemakers often place orders for the new barrels they will use to age wines from the upcoming harvest.
Ordering barrels now is beneficial because early orders usually receive a slight discount. One of my barrel brokers mentioned to me that ordering early was particularly important this year, as a dock worker slowdown and potential strike could hamper all shipments coming into the West Coast. This is a big potential problem for winemakers, because most wineries do not have the storage space available to keep all of their wines in tanks, and thus need new barrels each year in order to store their latest vintage of wines. So, why are barrels so important for winemaking, anyway?
Barrels have been used to store and transport wine for at least 2,000 years. In regions with oak forests it was noticed that wines stored in barrels picked up some interesting qualities from the wood. Oak influences wine aromatically by imparting fragrances ranging from raw oak or coconut (the smell of Bourbon whiskey) to vanilla and baking spices (clove and nutmeg). Barrels can even impart smoky barbecue aromas.
Aging wines in new oak barrels can also affect the flavor of the wine by increasing the body of the wine (also called weight or mid-palate) and imparting a sweetness and chewiness to the taste. The use of large percentages of new oak in winemaking is a somewhat new phenomenon, but has become popular because of the pleasing impact it has on wines, especially red wines.
For a variety of reasons white oak has emerged as by far the most popular type of wood used to age wines. This variety of oak is found in France, Eastern Europe (Northern Balkan states and parts of Russia), and in the United States, from Missouri north to Pennsylvania and south to Virginia. The origin of the oak is important to winemakers. French oak is said to give more spicy aromas (clove, nutmeg) and has more impact on mouth feel, while American oak is said to give more oaky/whiskey/vanilla aromas. Eastern European oak is thought to have properties somewhere in between French and American.
Another big factor in transferring aroma is the toast level of the barrel. As the inside of the barrel is toasted over an open fire, the chemical characteristics of the oak in contact with the wine change. The raw oak component begins to diminish and aromas of vanilla and baking spices increase, followed by aromas of barbecue and smoke at higher levels of toast. Untoasted oak can impart raw wood and the aroma of dill into wine.
The process of barrel aromas and flavors leaching out of the wood and into the wine can be compared to a tea bag in hot water. The first time the barrel or tea bag is used, the flavors leached out are strongest. If the tea bag is used again for another cup, the drinker will notice that the second cup of tea has less color, a fainter aroma, and tastes more watery or thin than the first. The same is true with barrels that are refilled and used for the next vintage. They impart fewer aromas and flavors to the wine in each subsequent use. After about four refills most winemakers consider barrels neutral, in that they no longer impart an appreciable aroma to the wine stored in them.
Filling, emptying, stacking and cleaning barrels are among the most time-consuming activities in wineries. Due to their odd shape, barrels are difficult to handle. Cleaning the barrels is a difficult chore, due to the small openings for filling and emptying. Because of this inconvenience some wineries, especially larger operations, have sought alternative methods of getting the great aromatics and tastes from barrel aging without actually using a barrel. What the wine industry calls “oak alternatives” can be supplied in all shapes and sizes — from barrel staves to cubes, chips, and even powdered additions prepared in a similar method to instant tea. These alternatives have come a long way in quality, and their cost-efficiency certainly makes a place in the industry for these products.
Still, because of their traditional use, their beauty, and their unmatched impact on fine wines, I don’t imagine oak barrels will be disappearing from your favorite winery anytime soon. I can remember the first time I walked into a barrel cellar and smelled the heady fragrance of oak and aging wine. The cool humidity made the air feel thick, and the aromas brought back sense memories of wines enjoyed in the past. They also called to mind wood shop class, my grandmother’s oak desk and eating cherries when I was young enough to climb a cherry tree.
That first experience in a barrel cellar is one of the reasons I changed my career and went back to school to learn the science of winemaking. I think many wine lovers feel this way when visiting a wine cellar as well.
Dwayne Bershaw is the associate director of the Southern Oregon Wine Institute at Umpqua Community College. He can be reached at Dwayne.Bershaw@umpqua.edu.