Winery Woods: A Guide To Barrels
While waiting to board a flight to the bay area in a quest that involved the Sonoma Cutrer winery, I became engaged in a discussion with a fellow traveler who had recently done a winery tour and had noticed stainless steel vessels being used and remarked that the winery must be going “new world” since he had expected to see oak barrels. Since he and I wouldn’t be sitting next to each other and the flight was boarding, I told him I’d address his observation in this article.
Not all wines will see the inside of a wood barrel. Stainless steel, concrete, terra cotta and clay vessels have reduced costs for wineries because of their longer life cycles. It’s also easier to control wine “over oak”. The idea of using clay as a vessel material dates back well into the times of the ancient Egyptians.
One of the primary benefits to storing wine in an oak barrel during the fermentation process is the very gentle oxidation that the oak allows. In order to duplicate the effect of that oxidation, some wineries will suspend oak chips in fabric bags in the stainless barrels or tanks – a practice outlawed in the European Union until 2006. Stainless steel containers don’t necessarily mean a lesser grade wine, nor do they spell the demise of wood barrels.
Woods used in wine barrels – Oak is certainly the best known barrel material, but of interest – Austrian winemakers have used acacia, Italians have used chestnut coated with paraffin, and others have tried pine, apple or cherry wood, but still the white oaks (European, American, and French) have provided the most consistently pleasant results. There has been a long standing rivalry built on the premise that French oak is far superior to American oak because the French oaks impart a more subtle range of flavors to the wine than the American oaks. To the contrary, recent findings have shown that the aggressively natured flavors found in the American made barrels were more the result of the way the barrels were coopered than the locale of the oak forests. The most distinctive differences in the processes are while the French air-dry the lumber prior to barrel fabrication, American cooperages use kiln drying.
One of the most critical steps in the coopering process is the charring or toasting of the wood. In order to get the wood staves to bend the cooper heats the wood to make it pliable. During the process, the cooper can toast the wood to the vintner’s specification. Generally speaking, lighter toasting produces light vanilla and mild spice flavors while heavier toasting helps produce the more robust heavy oak flavors. It was found that the American process of charring the barrel interior caused a condition known as over toasting the oak. Since the discovery, most American cooperages have adopted the French processes and now even some high end wineries use American barrels for their best vintages.
Some barrel basics to consider:
Usually second only to the grapes, wooden barrels are one of the largest expenses for a winery.
Average cost for French white oak barrel- $750 – $900USD (freight not considered)
Average cost for American white Oak barrel – $300 – $600USD
Life of a barrel on first coopering – 5-8 years
Number of times a barrel can be “re-coopered” (rebuilt) – depends on wood condition, the cooper and the importance the winery places on flavor consistency. Many better wineries don’t re-cooper, they sell off their barrels when they’re past prime.
Barrel head – Round, flat portion of barrel inserted into each end. Both the top and bottom ends are called heads.
Staves – Long curved oak plank that make up the body of the barrel.
Hoops – Steel bands that hold the barrel together, usually six or eight per barrel.
Chine – The rim at the ends of the barrel where the staves are fitted to the head.
There are two barrel shapes used for wood barrels – Bordeaux and Burgundy. The Bordeaux shaped barrel is taller and slimmer than the Burgundy design barrel, and contains roughly 50 gallons while the shorter, fatter Burgundy barrel contains approximately 61 gallons.
Oh, and another benefit of wood barrels is that they can eventually be re-purposed and sold on-line in the form of planters, lazy susans, cheese trays, chairs, tables and seemingly countless other goodies.